Dawkins, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

You’re with it by now, right? Lauren Nelson (Lake?) loves Richard Dawkins. She wrote a crappy post, got called out on it, then on her blog told us how we got it wrong, that she loves him but he could do better. It’s all been said, in comments, on twitter, on other blogs, … but … I don’t want to be left out!!!

So, there was this: Richard Dawkins Fails Spectacularly on Feminism and Islam – Lauren Nelson, on Friendly Atheist. This is the Dawkins tweet she gets off on:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsOver 1200 comments and a ton of tweets reject the message of that post, and a large number point out why.

Dear Lauren,

What follows is a list of your fuck-ups, Lauren. I would have posted this on your blog, but you’re screening comments. For ones you think you can deal with? Even if so, you’re still failing (agree to disagree, my arse). I know you’ve put up an abuse deflection shield that Klingons couldn’t break down, so I would have made my responses here kinder. But, fuck it, your own ego (LOL, see below) is preventing you seeing things any way but your way. Even your regular allies are denouncing your post, giving you a swerve, pretending you don’t exist, face-palming so much they have headaches (I know this, because I too have the mind reading powers you seem to have).

Onward: a summary of where you went wrong. I say ‘summary’, but, fuck, nearly every sentence. You’re first two sentences I’d agree with, and I could quibble over the next two, but as for the headline and much of the rest:

  1. Richard Dawkins Fails Spectacularly on Feminism and Islam – No, you failed, right out of the blocks, with the headline.
  2. Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women – No he didn’t dictate anything.
  3. He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries – No he isn’t.
  4. But what Dawkins, and many critics of Islam’s relationship with women, forget … – Nope he (we) haven’t forgotten – how could we?
  5. There are many more lived female experiences within this far-from-homogeneous culture of faith, and not all of them are ugly or oppressed. – Yet New Atheists like Dawkins are lambasted for comparing religions? LOL.
  6. But beyond the arrogance of assuming all women experience Muslim life the same way – No. That wasn’t assumed in that tweet or anything else he’s said or written that I’m aware of.
  7. .. is the ignorance of assuming that Muslim feminism doesn’t already exist. – No. That wasn’t assumed in that tweet or anything else he’s said or written that I’m aware of.
  8. In other words, Dawkins is way late to the party. – No. He’s been writing about Islam and the status of women in Islam since at least The God Delusion. Longer than you, Late Lauren.
  9. The Muslim feminist revolution is well underway, and even a cursory amount of research (Richard? Meet Google.) would have demonstrated as much. – Oh my fucking great aunt! Lauren, research Dawkins before telling Dawkins to research stuff. And, the ‘well under way’ contradicts other statements you make.
  10. His prior arrogance is compounded by the fact that he somehow thinks he is bringing something new to the table – Arrogance? Or impatience? But that aside, where do you get the idea he thinks he’s bringing something new to the table? Looks like he’s giving support to feminists he’s aware of.
  11. … the implication being that these poor non-Western women of color could not possibly have figured this out before now and without his help. – Nope. Didn’t imply that. That’s your implication Lauren. It popped into your head, and you thought it was Dawkins idea?
  12. In this sense, at least, Dawkins is in good company. Western feminists have historically, erroneously, assumed they are the only ones up to the task. – No he doesn’t, and I don’t know western feminists that do either. Where do these ideas come from? Sometimes outsiders are in a better position to help, when the oppression of the insiders is so great. One commenter pointed out South Africa and apartheid as an example. Even so, that wasn’t in the tweet.
  13. Ignorance was bad. Arrogance was worse. But Dawkins’ biggest offense rests elsewhere: ego. – Nope. To all of those. I think, Lauren, you mistake impatience at this torrent of crap for ego. If there’s any ego here it’s yours, and you’re busted. The ignorance is yours.
  14. He pretended not to hear those informing him of the existing feminist movement – How do you know that? Mind reader? And, if he’s already aware of it what’s the point?
  15. He shrugged off those who pointed out that, as a white Western male, he might not have the best perspective on what non-Western women of color might want. – Shrugged off? Evidence? Or did he ignore demands for what was already in the tweet: “What can we do to help?” is a fucking expression of that.
  16. He was derisive and belittling. – When deserved. I would too. But not in that tweet. And on your blog you only show one additional tweet from him, post your post.
  17. When you offer someone “help” and they decline, it’s hardly productive to berate them for turning you down. – Not when done with the ‘ego’ (yes, Muslim feminists can express their Islamic supremacy ego too) that doesn’t merely decline, but flat out rejects his input entirely. So much for your belated claim that old white men can have an opinion and offer help when you’re using such rejections as support for your case against Dawkins.
  18. If Dawkins wants to help, here are some practical suggestions – Well, you could have written a post that simply started and ended right here. So, even this is late in the post, Late Lauren. But hold on, here come the dumb qualifiers …
  19. He should educate himself … He should donate … He should use his wide network … – Who’s dictating now? Yes, I know your use of ‘should’ is advisory, not demanding, but look how easy it is for you to use terms that can be taken the wrong way, in a post in which you took a decent tweet the whole fucking wrong way. Fuck.
  20. He should use his wide network to signal-boost – In case you missed it (and you did, spectacularly) that is what the tweet was doing.
  21. But most importantly, he should start by listening to the people he aims to assist. – What can we do to help? Listening!
  22. For a man who values logic, you’d think that at least that last part would have occurred to him already. – It clearly has. But not to you. But then you don’t appear to value the logic or reason, or evidence.

And that’s before we get to the Anne Theriault crap.

But, I’ll end on a positive note. You provided links to some people I didn’t know about, and maybe Dawkins didn’t either, who knows (you don’t). Cheers.

On second thoughts, not so positively, you could have just embedded the tweet and said, “Hey, Dawk’s, great tweet. On the money. Here’s some links that might help.”

Is Mehdi Hasan Inciting Hatred Among Muslims?

Mehdi Hasan has been on Facebook, firing up Islamophobia. His statement is simple:

This awful Daily Telegraph piece, from headline to last sentence, is pure Islamophobia, a textbook case of ‘othering’ an entire community of British citizens:

The article?

It is Muslims who must reach out to Britain – David Cameron is right to identify the resentment that young Muslims can feel, but the antidote can only come from within Muslim communities themselves – Philip Johnston.

We know how gullible people are on Facebook. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve posted hoax slaying links under claims about the magic of some weight pill, how storing water in plastic bottles will give you cancer – even the fake one about Tesco refusing to serve a soldier in uniform at a time when dead soldiers were coming back from Afghanistan – that was intended to incite Islamophobia, or more specifically, Muslim-phobia.

So, you’d think some well known journalist would be a bit more responsible in his Facebook posts. Not Mehdi Hasan, who writes the most outrageously biased posts, and then sits back to let easily inflamed west-hating Muslims and British Muslim-phobic non-Muslims start unloading on each other. I’m surprised this last post isn’t classed as hate speech.

Let’s check the claim again, from Mehdi Hasan: “from headline to last sentence, is pure Islamophobia” And let’s have a look at the article, from headline to last sentence.

Well, the headline is pretty straight forward, to the point, but I’m not sure how it can be considered Islamophobic. The trouble is the headline isn’t that clear, by itself. At face value it’s saying what pretty much applies to any community that has a significant number of members that consider themselves to be not British. The same goes for British ‘ex-pats’ that move to Spain to live, where the locals are reasonably disgruntled that many of these Brits try to create a Little Britain, pushing out local Spanish, importing British pub life. But even so, I can see how the headline alone might have Mehdi wondering about what’s coming next.

But what does come next is not only benign, the sub-heading reflects the messages we hear often from Muslims. The message of the headline and sub: “David Cameron is right to identify the resentment that young Muslims can feel.” Well, isn’t that what Mehdi wants? Hasn’t he been banging on about identity? Here’s Johnston saying that.

And, “the antidote can only come from within Muslim communities themselves” – This is just what many Muslims have been saying in an attempt to reject opinions from non-Muslims, who, it is claimed, don’t understand Islam. We’re also told this by #PseudoLiberals that try to protect Islam from criticism (you know, because to criticise Islam is to personally attack and demonise all Muslims).

Nothing Islamophobic here.

Perhaps the problem lies within the body of the article. Already the inciteful Mehdi’s “from headline to last sentence, is pure Islamophobia” is looking a bit thin, but let’s see.

Paragraph 1: Nothing to do with Islam, but a reflection on authors own naive impressionable self in the days of the socialist phenomenon of the seventies Britain. But I can’t imagine many young Muslims demonstrating on the streets of Britain being any different in their passions.

Para-2: More of the same. Personal history.

Para-3: Same subject. Nothing on Islam at all yet.

Para-4: Ah, a quote from Cameron’s speech, and first implied link similarity between extremists of the past and ISLAMISTS (extremists that act in the name of Islam, but which Mehdi likes to think isn’t real Islam). Nothing on Muslims and Islam in general yet. Not a jot of Islamophobia of any kind yet.

So far Philip Johnston has done nothing more than express his own young passionate naiveté and accused older supposedly wiser heads for inciting anti-British, anti-western, passions based on rather simplistic political ideology of the 70’s. Yes, I know, Mehdi is primed to read this as a dig at Muslims, but it’s no more than a dig at the hate preachers Mehdi himself surely disagrees with, when they incite Muslim youth. That’s right, isn’t it Mehdi, you do oppose what the hate preachers say? Only from your rhetoric it’s not always clear.


By contrast, young Muslim men – and, increasingly, girls – have few counterpoints to the warped world view they experience on a daily basis, whether at home, in school, on TV or through the Internet. It is their separation from the mainstream rather than the ideology itself that is the problem.

Holy fuck! He mentioned Muslims! Islamophobe!

Hold, on, what’s Johnston actually saying? Isn’t Mehdi always banging on about identity problems? Isn’t separation from mainstream British culture part of the problem? Can you really demand segregation and special status and complain you’re not treated like everyone else?

Essentially, this has a lot to do with a shared religion, which is why those who say Islam is not the issue miss the point: it is not that its teachings are necessarily at fault, but Islam provides an impenetrable ethical and cultural carapace that repels liberal ideas.

So, he’s not blaming Islam as such, but merely identifying a difference between Islam as lived in some communities and the liberal values of Britain in general. Isn’t that what many Muslims are actually saying, that they are relatively conservative, want to keep their kids away from the influence of the more liberal values observed in many young British non-Muslims? Is Mehdi denying that some Muslims want this sort of segregation, the sort that chooses to have women wear traditional Islamic dress if the wish? I’m not seeing anything Islamophobic here, but an acknowledgement of what many Muslims say.

Where’s the Islamophobia?


It may well be true that some young Muslims feel angry and alienated but that is only because they are fed a daily diet of resentment that other settlers – Jews, Chinese, Indians etc – do not feel.

Fed a daily diet of resentment by Mehdi Hasan and many other influential Muslims playing the victim. The problem is that this ploy masks genuine cases of persecution: actual racist persecution of Muslims, and the persecution of people within Muslim communities by Muslims.

These [other – Jews, Chinese, Indians etc] communities have also often congregated together (just as expat Brits do) but they are more open to the influences of the wider community and much more likely to embrace the values and support the institutions that underpin the nation.

Nothing Islamophobic here. A straight forward comparison of how various communities in Britain have issues arising out of their community segregation. This isn’t a value judgement. It’s quite natural for communities to of like minded, like language, like religion, to want to stick together. That’s what makes communities. But as we see around the world, distinct communities, minorities can often co-exist with a host culture, and can become so well established that most of the time they rub along well, even in their differences. But again, as with many places around the world, there can be a conflict of ideas and practices. There really isn’t anything Islamophobic in what Johnston is saying here.


Here, Johnston is addressing the problems that a British PM faces in trying to keep the nation running smoothly, in the midst of one particular salient fact: too many British Muslims are being radicalised.

… what, specifically, makes a young Muslim susceptible to extremist ideology but not a young second-generation Indian or, for that matter, a young British Christian bombarded with the quack nostrums of Marxist collectivism.

I think Mehdi would agree that these other communities are not experiencing radicalisation the way some Muslims are. It’s a genuine question. What can be Islamophobic about establishing the facts of the matter?

To ignore the cultural confines of Islam and say this is really a political, not a religious, issue is to miss the point entirely as, indeed, Mr Cameron conceded for the first time in his Birmingham speech.

Is Mehdi so naive, or dishonest, not to notice that when the radicalisation of some British Muslims, many from a Pakistani heritage that has nothing to do with Syria or Iraq other than Muslim identity and religion, is so focused on that community’s identity, in Islam, that he really has to try to divert attention from Islam, incite western-phobia, and contribute to the inflaming of British Muslims?

Breaking down these barriers is the real challenge, just as it has been for the past 30 years. We are reaping the whirlwind of the multiculturalist experiment that the Left championed and the Right were too cowed to denounce until the baleful consequences of segregation became apparent.

Again, nothing here that is Islamophobic, because the post-modern relativism that has clouded the vision of multi-culturalism applies right across the board. When Reza Aslan points out that FGM isn’t just an Islamic problem (it isn’t, but look at Aslan’s misrepresentation of the facts), then clearly the recent report on FGM in the UK presents a problem that has not been addressed, and there are specific examples of it not being addressed because post-modern relativist reluctant to offend has overridden the humanist right not to be mutilated.

Seven paragraphs in, and while there’s been mention of Islam and Muslim identity issues, there’s been nothing that we haven’t heard from many liberal Muslims, about the segregation, isolation of their communities. There has been nothing in this that is Islamophobic – unless, as the deeply offended Mehdi Hasan would have it, merely acknowledging and reviewing the nature of the problem for some Muslims is in itself Islamophobia. If it is, then virtually everything coming out of Mehdi Hasan’s pen is western-phobia, British-phoniab, white-phobia. There’s no end to the phobias you can find if you turn your mind to it, and Mehdi Hasan has made a name for himself doing it, for Islam.

Para-8 – It’s not until paragraph eight that we have something of a value judgement on the differences between Islamic and other British cultural influences.

Again Johnston echoes Cameron’s speech. Which, incidentally, surely means that by now Mehdi Hasan is saying that Cameron’s speech is Islamophobic. Of course it wouldn’t suit his agenda to make it that clear, to speak so plainly. After all, Mehdi, by now, has been found out with his poisonous rhetoric often enough. He still wants to play the part of a British liberal Muslim while being free to inciting division the way he does. The plausible deniability of accusing Cameron of being an Islamophobe is something he has to be careful to hang on to, because while he can get away with inciting hatred in his fellow Muslims he can’t risk being seen as an anti-western Islamist by too many non-Muslims.

I still don’t think Mehdi is an Islamist. I still think he’s somewhat liberal. But videos of his hate speech rhetoric exist out there, and it’s difficult to take his denouncements of those episodes seriously when some of the same sentiments sneak in to his current persona. But, still, I’d err on the side of good saying he is well meaning, but genuinely misguided by his Islamic indoctrination.

Of course, his #PseudoLiberal non-Muslim leftist ideologue buddies have no trouble demonising Cameron or anyone else they disagree with. Owen Jones already had Cameron down as a PR man for ISIS, because he was blaming ALL MUSLIMS (not that again): David Cameron, inadvertent PR man for Islamic extremists. So, the Quran and Hadith are not sufficient persuasion for ISIS?

Onward with Johnston. In parapgraph eight, Johnston asks:

Mr Cameron said it was wrong to say Islam was incompatible with British values; yet at the same time he insisted that those who follow minority faiths must subscribe to mainstream progressive views on gay marriage and gender equality. How do those two statements come together when attitudes to homosexuality and women’s rights – and even democracy in places like Tower Hamlets – are so out of sync with the tolerance and values shown by the majority?

Well, has Mehdi not said himself that he is homophobic? He now says he was wrong, but surely Mehdi isn’t trying to tell us all fellow British Muslims have changed their minds too? He can tell himself what he likes about the status of women in Islam, but he’s not fooling anyone but himself and a lot of fellow Muslims. There are real Islamic values, not just Islamist distortions, that are in direct conflict with liberal British. And while many other Britons don’t like how liberal Britain is, they are not being radicalised by their faith quite so often or as easily.

It’s not until paragraph nine, the last one, that Johnston does anything like pointing a finger at the Muslim community in general. But look carefully at what he says:

The Prime Minister said that to face down extremism we all must change our approach; but since support for violent jihadism is confined to the Muslim community, it is patently not true that everyone has a role to play. To pretend otherwise is to perpetuate the cultural cringe that got us into this mess in the first place.

If some members of the British Chinese community started to incite anti-British anti-democratic, homophobic, misogynistic feelings within that community, and some started to consider violent attacks on British civilians or the military, do you really think Mehdi Hasan wouldn’t wash his hands of it. Perhaps even claim that, oh, had they been Muslims, following the religion of peace, this wouldn’t have happened? Mehdi might well have made the same anti-western diversionary claims – it’s Britain’s fault, for, whatever. But he certainly would have made it clear that it’s not an Islamic problem, not a Muslim problem.

Remember my main point here, set out at the top. Mehdi Hasan had claimed the Johnston article to be “from headline to last sentence, is pure Islamophobia”

Let’s see Johnston’s last sentence:

But all his bold statements about cohesion, and the counter-terrorism strategy now being devised, will be immaterial if the Muslims he needs to convince are simply not listening.

That’s the nature of the Islamophobia?

Radical Islam, Islamism, is derived squarely from Islam, and in Britain is leading to many Muslims joining ISIS, some even plotting to carry out attacks here, and occasionally succeeding. And when Johnston says, quite simply, that Muslims need to help us solve this problem, because these radicals and those radicalising them, are embedded in their segregated communities, then in what sense is it not important for responsible Muslims to care and contribute to the solution instead of, as Mehdi Hasan does, only washing their hands of all responsibility, denying Islam has anything to do with it, but also diverting blame everywhere else they can.

This Johnston article isn’t Islamophobic. It’s a fairly simple echo of Cameron’s speech, put, early on, in the context of the Johnston’s own youthful misguided exposure to 70’s radicalisation. It’s a comparison of how radicalisation works within a framework of an ideology. It’s a clear statement that, as the 70’s socialist intelligentsia needed to look to themselves for what they were doing, so too now do Muslim preachers of hate in the Muslim community. Cameron’s speech was a call for decent Muslims to speak up and not let some of these radicalised organisations (mis)represent them. Let’s here your support for democracy and liberal secular values. Even if you personally want to live a more conservative pious life, if you can’t sign up to the secularism that allows freedom of belief for everyone, including minorities within the Muslim community, women, gays, then you really are part of the problem.

For stating this, Mehdi Hasan says this article is “from headline to last sentence, is pure Islamophobia”.

If that’s not incitement to hatred of Britain, of the west, aimed at British Muslims, by Mehdi’s own weak standards of ‘phobia’, then what is?

Cenk Uygur Is Losing His Grip On Reality?

A good show from @KyleKulinski on Cenk Uygur getting his panties in a twist over New Atheists (well, Sam Harris really). Kyle’s show is a ‘TheYoungTurks Partner’, and I’ve seen Kyle raise this issue with Cenk before. In an earlier show I thought Kyle had some details wrong and gave Cenk too much benefit of the doubt. So it’s significant that Kyle gets what the problem is with Cenk, though I don’t know he’s aware of the full nature of the problem.

So, the main point Kyle brings up here is that in criticising someone for making sweeping generalisations about people, Cenk Uygur makes a super sweeping generalisation by including New Atheists in his critique of Lindsey Graham. Yes, that’s Lindsey Graham. The Republican. The Conservative. Yes, Cenk Uygur lumps New Atheists – that’s the liberal bunch of atheists that criticise religion for its conservative oppressive elements and scriptures – with conservative Republicans. You have to keep repeating it to yourself, not because it’s a difficult idea to understand, but because it’s so stupid you wonder why someone could be so wrong.

Sam Harris time and again promotes support of liberal Muslims, acknowledges the variety of Islamic interpretation, goes out of his way to say, ‘not all Muslims’, but still Cenk has to make these dumb accusations; ironically, while Cenk is also telling us how much he opposes Islam too – but, you know, when he criticises Islam that’s not making sweeping generalisations, and doesn’t target all Muslims, because Cenk says so. No matter that Harris is explicit and specific in what he is criticising: Islam.

Wow. Cenk is becoming ideologically obsessed with New Atheists – oh, sorry, sweeping generalisation on my part, because of course he has a problem with Sam Harris specifically. Why? Cenk let himself be sold on the Reza Aslan bullshit, has taken on the ‘Sam Harris is an imperialist neocon’, without reading much at all of Harris. Since then he’s been schooled on his errors, by so many people that had been fans of Cenk and TYT.

Cenk has since been all defensive, to the point of getting really aggressive in his rhetoric.

Cenk really does misrepresent Harris – just as many pseudo-liberals do. He keeps repeating this nuclear first strike nonsense. He rejects flat out that Harris is talking hypothetically, as we’ll see below in one of Cenk’s most ridiculous outbursts.

The criticisms of Cenk by Cenk fans has been spot on.

James MacDonald produced this piece, The curious Case of Cenk Uygur, in which he links to the incredible outburst episode from Cenk, and to the three hour discussion between Cenk and Sam Harris. The message is one of clear regret from a TYT fan that Cenk is so out of touch.

Lalo Dagach made a video on the problem with Cenk regarding the Harris and Maher stuff. Cenk Uygur lies about Sam Harris and Bill Maher (by a TYT fan)

Now some people are jumping on Ben Aleck for calling them racist, and “Islam’s not a race!” – Just calm down, dude, you know he meant bigoted. You know there’s not much of a distinction. So, don’t nit-pick stupid stuff like that.”

As Lalo points out, Afleck was pretty clear that he meant racist. Lao also covers Cenk’s other point, that “there’s not much of a distinction” between bigoted and racist charges.

But also, note how Cenk there defends Afleck, as if he’s made a slip of the tongue. And yet when criticising Harris he’ll cling onto every literal word of Harris in an interview, and even if Harris later corrects himself (which Afleck never has) that’s not good enough for Cenk.

Really, you should listen to Lalo’s video.

James Kirk Wall takes down Cenk in Cenk Uygur’s imaginary war with Bill Maher and Sam Harris, and in plain terms tells Cenk to take the stick out of his ass.

You want more bullshit from Cenk? Get this, from The Noble Savage channel, The Young Turks vs Sam Harris – The Evidence. Again, listen to it all, but here’s a significant point:

Bill Maher challenges Ben Afleck, by asking if all of a billion Muslims DO NOT hold the unsavoury views discussed (and Maher has the figure corrected to 1.5 billion). Cenk Uyghur then states that Bill Maher DOES say all a billion Muslims DO hold those views:

Bingo, right there. That’s the biggest problem in this whole thing. Bill Maher saying, no, over a billion Muslims. All of them. Not a small minority, not even a significant minority, no, he said that’s just not true, all of them hold those opinions [the unsavoury opinions held by many Muslims as just pointed out by Harris]

Yes, Maher is saying SOME Muslims surely do hold these views, but Cenk says Mahers says over a billion Muslims hold those views, ALL of them. Cenk slips in a caveat, with, “He might not have literally said all”, but really does make the greater general claim.

It seems basic logic is beyond Cenk here.

This video chips in with text overlays pointing out many of the places where Cenk gets it dead wrong. I mean so badly wrong you start to wonder if Cenk actually sat down an paid attention to the Maher episode, or if he’d got the anti-Harris script ready and just made the Maher clips fit his agenda. Fucking terrible stuff.

Later the video shows bits from other TYT shows, including the CJ Werleman crap, where he likens Harris to Mao’s intent to wipe out religion. While you’re listening to that, hold that thought, and then listen to the Cenk outrage ‘New McCarthyism’ show linked to below, where Cenk tells us, Moa-like, he’d like to rid the world of religion, if we’re going to use that sort of rhetoric. The fucking hypocrisy leaps out from the screen.

Oh, and on Cenk’s reading of Harris, he says pretty much there, at about 15:30 into this video, that he’s read pretty damned close to fuck all of Harris, if you’re going to get a fair view of what Harris says rather than what others say he says. Cenk, you fucking moron. Get a grip.

Another thing you pick up on in this video, when Cenk interviews Harris, is the body language of Cenk at times – he’s simply not listening.

Another video from TheNobleSavage: Sam Harris – Cenk Doesn’t Understand How to Stay on Point. Worth watching.

Cenk’s low point was the following video, referred to is some of the sources above: Is Anti-Muslim Bigotry The New McCarthyism?

This starts with an attack on anti-Muslim bigotry, but about 1:50 in the target changes – and it’s all about the hurt that Cenk is feeling because so many liberals have called Cenk out on his bullshit misrepresentation of Harris.

When this get’s going we see the three hosts, but watch Anna. I really feel sorry for her as she has to endure this rant from Cenk. At one point, as she appears to look at the monitor, I imagine she’s thinking, “Oh shit, I’m still on screen. I don’t know, perhaps it’s time to get my CV out there before I’m tarnished with this crap.”

Much of this is a whine because Cenk has been criticised by fans of the show.

This whole Bill Maher, Sam Harris thing, they’re rabid man. Online, every day, they’re relentless. “Oh Cenk, you don’t know, you keep sticking up for the Muslims.” Yeah, OK, guilty as fucking charged.”

Well, there’s no doubt, that in comments that Cenk may receive, and Harris too, there are those that conflate their hatred for Islam and Muslims. Yes, there are bigots. But is it possible Cenk here is yet again making sweeping generalisations, that all commenters that support Harris are therefore bigots. Is it not possible that some of these critics have it right and that Cenk is wrong on this?

But yes, I stick up for Muslim Americans. So, you’re gonna have to come through me. If you wanna say, oh, “the Muslims! the Muslims! They’re the bad guys. You know a Muslim. You support a Muslim.” Yes, I know Muslims, I support Muslims. They’re American ‘cause they’re one hundred percent Americans, and you’re goon have to come through me. You wanna fight on it, we’ll fight on it. You wanna call yourself a liberal? You don’t know what a fucking liberal is. You wanna call yourself a progressive? You’re not remotely progressive.

Cenk is just right off the rails here.

Let’s do what Cenk does. So, Cenk, “They’re American ‘cause they’re one hundred percent Americans” Ha! so all Muslim Americans are loyal Americans? Including the ones that aren’t? What about the ones that support ISIS?!! You’re condoning the support of ISIS Cenk! … and so it goes, if you play Cenk’s stupid game.

No, this video is a direct response to the criticism Cenk has received from liberals, real liberals that criticise Islam, liberals that really do not persecute Muslims, liberals that really do support liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims.

But even supporting Muslims and ex-Muslims isn’t good enough for Cenk. Aayan Irsi Ali? Neocon. Harris is writing a book with the Muslim Maajid Nawaz? How convenient for Harris.

This mind-set that Cenk has himself locked into is right up the same street as Glenn Greenwald and C J Werlemen.

Set them [Muslims] aside, make sure we profile them, we watch them, we go into their mosques, we go into their universities, we go into their college groups; and if we need be, torture them; if need be do first strikes against them. If need be, according to Sam Harris’s book, “I’m just being hypothetical. You know, I’m just posing. I mean, what if we did a nuclear first strike on them. I mean, after all, the are Muslims.” If you believe that you are not remotely progressive. You are a foaming at the mouth neoconservative; and yes, you are discriminating against those people. You don’t like? “Oh, no, [mock tears] you called me racist, bigoted, you said I discriminate.” I’m sorry, I called you what you fucking are. So stop pretending you’re liberals. You’re not. You’re not. You agree with the Dick Cheneys of this world. That’s what you are. So, a lot of people gonna get angry at me, including in our audience? Sad day for you. I’m here to say, when you come for them, you’re gonna have to go through us. Because we stick up for all Americans. .. we stand up for all Americans. If you wanna say Islam is wrong, I’m a million percent with you. I want to get rid of all religion on the planet. That’s how serious I am in being against religion. If you want to say, “This group of people, you should treat them differently,” you’re fucking wrong, and I’ll fight you to the death on it.

The first part of that, the setting aside, profiling, …, nuclear first strike – that conflates so many different points, some actually hypothetical. So, does Cenk label all philosophers as murdering neocons whenever they discuss the hypothetical trolley problem. It’s just stupid. And each of the points Cenk piles into one false perspective here has a specific context in which Harris is making a specific point. What Cenk says here in no way bears any resemblance to what Harris says.

To say that someone like Harris, or New Atheists generally, or the many people who agree with Harris, are neoconservative, agreeing with the Dick Cheneys, that is just the most fucking stupid shit I’ve heard.

And Cenk, it seems, when it comes to Islam and religions generally, is just as anti-Islam as Harris. Where does this shit come from that Harris would persecute Muslims? It comes from Cenk listening to what others have been saying about Harris, rather than reading Harris. By the time it gets to the Aslan and Harris interviews he has gotten around to reading some Harris, though we’re not sure what – seems like just a few bits and pieces. But it’s too late. He’s dug his hole and he just keeps on digging.

This is a fucking disgrace. As others have said, how can you trust TYT when this sort of bullshit is an example of balanced reporting.

I still try to watch TYT; but it’s hard to stay focused when you know that the main man has such a hard on for Harris.

Social Justice The PZ Way

As far as I’m concerned Social Justice is a good cause, and one aspect of it that’s still needed is Feminism. There are injustices against women in many areas of interaction with men, and often at work: about work and in personal interactions at work.

The disputes and claims of harassment can be pretty tough to untangle. The people involved may have ‘history’ (that vague term clearly covers many complex possibilities), and often there are few, if any, witnesses to incidents, but often plenty of opinion and gossip. Work is just like that. It’s a freaky combination of professional and social life where the barriers aren’t always clear.

So this is one situation that requires some level headed treatment, the suspension of judgement, and calm reflected analysis all round – especially since those directly involved are likely to be emotionally charged about the conflict.

Librarians Value Social Justice Too

This happened recently:

Team Harpy – Apologies and retractions

It’s an apology from two harpies (their term) for making false accusations about librarian Joe Murphy (no relation). They accused him of sexual harassment, with nothing to go on but hearsay. The original offending blog posts appeared back in 2014, and the above apology and out of court settlement was announced recently, in March 2015.

Both ‘nina de jesus’ and ‘Lisa Rabey’ start with something similar:

I apologize for the false and damaging statements that I have made about Joe Murphy. I ask you to please read the following statement for details from my perspective. …

Here’s Joe’s page on the background, and the outcome:


Joe signs off on this with:

Now, I don’t know any of the people involved in this stuff. I have some vague recollection of ‘librarians’ and ‘harassment’, but up until this latest announcement I wouldn’t have remembered where I saw it initially.

It did come back to me – but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s have a look at how some librarians dealt with this.

One Librarian’s Response

Other people had something to say at the time, some fellow librarians, some not. Have a look at this link. I’m actually linking to the comment by Natalie Binder (as tweeted by Joe) who makes a few good points.

Natalie Binder’s comment, on the post ‘Update: Librarians Embroiled in Lawsuit Alleging Sexual Harassment’

  1. “I’ve seen a lot of people use their impressions, opinions or gut feelings in place of the facts.”
  2. “Joe Murphy, a colleague, was the victim of a public slander that was pretty shocking in its content as well as deeply damaging and painful for all involved.”
  3. “With so many of us living public lives, we are all vulnerable to rumor, innuendo and even malicious lies. “
  4. “..nobody wants to re-victimize (or libel) someone who was abused by calling her a liar.”
  5. “I think (hope?) that is why more in the library community did not speak up earlier [to re-victimize or libel the abused]. It’s why I didn’t say anything until more information came out. Now I feel like that was a mistake.”
  6. “Anyone can be a victim and everyone deserves due process. It should absolutely be safe to say you’ve been victimized, but the accused should also be protected from personal and professional repercussions until the facts are established. That’s true no matter how successful we are, what gender we are, what age we are or even what our reputations are.”

Now, it seems to me that in some quarters I’ve seen plenty of 1, sometimes expressed in terms of 5, or even just outright acceptance of the accuser’s story; and I’ve seen little consideration given to the other important points that Natalie makes. And I’ve seen categorical rejections of any concern with the last sentence in 6 when it comes to the accused.

Some more points well made by Natalie:

  1. “I think that efforts to blame Mr. Murphy for what happened, or condemn him for seeking legal relief, should stop. It is not a SLAPP when someone defends himself against actual libel.”
  2. “What you think or believe about Mr. Murphy’s behavior, personality or job, it doesn’t justify libel.”
  3. “Finally, we don’t get to make a person a scapegoat for a diffuse and difficult social problem like sexual harassment. This is especially if there is no evidence that he did anything wrong, but it’s true even if he (or she or they) did.”


Read the rest of that OP and comments to get a feel for the problems with sexual harassment that seem to be of genuine concern. I know nothing of their world of librarianship and I don’t know any of the characters. But one thing is pretty clear:

This false accusation will not have helped the genuinely harassed, but it may have helped the falsely accused. That isn’t a balanced result, if you think there’s far more harassment than there is false accusation.

Another Librarian

Whistleblowers and what still isn’t transparent, by Meredith Farkas.

  1. “I don’t take back or regret anything I said about my personal interaction with Joe [see below], but I was horrified by the way he was tarred and feathered — by people who had no first-hand knowledge of him or his alleged crimes — on social media.”
  2. “It’s been no secret among many women (and some men) who attend and speak at conferences like Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries that Joe Murphy has a reputation for using these conferences as his own personal meat markets. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. I’ve known these allegations since before 2010, which was when I had the privilege of attending a group dinner with him.”
  3. “He didn’t sexually harass anyone at the table that evening, but his behavior was entitled, cocky, and rude. He barely let anyone else get a word in edgewise because apparently what he had to say (in a group with some pretty freaking illustrious people) was more important than what anyone else had to say. The host of the dinner apologized to me afterwards and said he had no idea what this guy was like. And that was the problem.”
  4. “When Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus (AKA #teamharpy) wrote about behavior from Joe Murphy that many of us had been hearing about for years, I believe they though they were acting as whistleblowers, though whistleblowers who had only heard about the behavior second or third-hand, which I think is an important distinction.”
  5. “That said, that this information comes second or third-hand does concern me. I don’t know for a fact that Joe Murphy is a sexual predator. Do you? Here’s what I do know. Did he creep out women at conferences? Yes. Did he behave like an entitled jerk at least some of the time? Yes. Do many people resent the fact that a man with a few years of library experience who hasn’t worked at a library in years is getting asked to speak at international conferences when all he offers is style and not substance? Yes.”
  6. “While all of the rumors about him that have been swirling around for at least the past 4-5 years may be 100% true, I don’t know if they are. I don’t know if anyone has come out and said they were harassed by him beyond the general “nice shirt” comment that creeped out many women.”
  7. “As anyone who has read my blog for a while knows, I am terrified of groupthink. So I feel really torn when it comes to this case. Part of me wonders whether my dislike of Joe Murphy makes me more prone to believe these things. Another part of me feels that these allegations are very consistent with my experience of him and with the rumors over these many years. But I’m not going to decide whether the allegations are true without hearing it from someone who experienced it first-hand.”

So, basically there’s this guy that some people find cocky and rude; and maybe some people have been all too eager to prop up rumours, maybe enhance them through the reliable process of gossip – reliable in muddying waters not clarifying them. What these two women did was not whistleblowing. That was rumour mongering.

And, “I’m not going to decide whether the allegations are true without hearing it from someone who experienced it first-hand.” – Good call.

A couple of comments from Meredith’s post:

Chris – “I’ve been following this. I have read both Lisa’s tweets and Nina’s blog posts and neither has first-hand knowledge of Joe’s actions. Rather, they have heard about his actions from others and are “spreading the word.” I have also met Joe Murphy. I was not impressed and thought he was a rude jerk, but he did not harass me. At the risk of being unpopular, I don’t believe this is a clear cut “Lisa and Nina are victims and must be supported against the big mean Joe Murphy.” While it is true that our justice system is unfair at an aggregate level, this is an individual case and for all I know it could be an outlier.”

Anonymous Librarian – “I agree this is sad for everyone. There’s a lot of discussion about this topic so I don’t feel too bad hijacking here… So, “Nice shirt” is creepy now. I don’t know what is safe to say to a coworker anymore. I remember recently saying I liked a coworker’s new hairstyle, and now I’m paranoid I’ll get called into the HR office any day now. When this drama first came out, I immediately stopped personal conversation with my coworkers. It’s strictly professional, now. Not even a “Hey, cool bag!” Because sexual harassment is very serious and, as Meredith points out, there’s often little evidence and things devolve into a case of “he said-she said”. Most might dismiss this as extreme/paranoid, but who can afford to have their career ruined by a misunderstanding? I’d rather my coworkers think of me as impersonal, boring, and overly-serious than a creep.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but all that seems like decent people dealing with a very tricky problem, and actually speaking out about their reservations. They really do want to support victims of harassment, but aren’t prepared to join a lynch mob.

A Lynch Mob

This is an example of a lynch mob:

Librarians, too?


“I love librarians, they always seem to be the most sensible people, and here it comes, a familiar story.”

Any chance a leaf might be taken out of their many sensible books?

OK, so Myer’s is sort of just reporting the issue here. Or so it seems. But he’s not normally shy about actually calling people out directly himself. Is he being circumspect about his own view for the same reasons as the good sensible librarians above? Balanced justice? His reticence can’t be anything to do with the fact that he’s been called out several times by many people for explicit but unsupported accusations? Does he warn his pack of hounds to maybe wait for more information? Not quite:


“Battle on!”

A true Social Justice Warrior!

And battle on his pack do, in their usual style. Myers no longer needs to expose himself to criticism for libelling or smearing someone, he only has to set the bait. Nice move. I can’t see Joe Murphy suing Myers for this.

Pieter Droogendijk:

“What a reprehensible slimeball. If the ladies lose this, my faith in humanity will be officially gone.”

Guilty! Doesn’t matter if the ‘ladies’ lose this because they lied, made shit up, spread rumours and elaborated. Guilty.

Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

“I suspect if the two get enough funds for discovery to happen, the lawsuit will go the way of the great auk. It’s one thing to try intimidation, it’s another to battle the truth and show it is lies, with plenty of witnesses saying you are sexual predator. Good enough for lawsuits, where the preponderance of evidence, not beyond a shadow of doubt, supposedly wins…..”

Plenty of witnesses indeed. How do you know there are plenty of witnesses? A classic theologian’s move: God inspired the Bible. How do I know? Because the Bible told me so. Well, the two harpies told him so?

Tony! The Queer Shoop:

“And this: [lawsuit] is the sign of an asshole trying to silence women. Fuck you Joe Murphy.”

Ah, Tony. Where would PZ be without Tony to do the dirty work. As reliable as ever. So, Tony, nobody starts a lawsuit because they are innocent?

YOB – Ye Olde Blacksmith:

“Fuck you, Joe Mrphy. Money sent.”

And I hope you think well spent.


“The blogpost comments include a remark that he bragged on youtube, creating his own evidence.”

So, echidna (step 1) says the comments include a remark (step 2) that he bragged on youtube (step 3) – hearsay, three steps from the supposed source, not counting any other intermediaries hidden and not yet revealed by the source of the ‘remark’. OK, evidenced based commenting at its best.


“Well, you know what they say. The easiest defense against a libel/slander allegation is the truth. In a just world, all they should need to do is bring forward multiple women who have been harassed by this fucker and/or emails and other correspondence between women instituting the buddy system and other measures they’ve taken to protect themselves from this assclown, and he would be laughed out of court.
Then again, it’s hardly a just world for women. :(“

Yeah, fuck it if there possibly, maybe, might have been actual libel, let’s just focus on doing the right thing, for the accuser presumed victim!

Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought (love theromantic names the FtB commenters give themselves):

“Seconding Alex in #18. What the fuck? It’s absurd that Joe Murphy can do this.” – [about the injustice of being sued]

There are problems when rich people get better access to the law. But WTF, a librarian can’t defend himself if he thinks he’s wrongly accused?

Remember that with all this, it’s not about whether Joe Murphy was actually guilty of harassment, or that the two women made shit up based on rumour – though of course to him that was what it was about.

What I mean is: This is about other people that know fuck all about the case making the accused guilty on the internet.

But, luckily for Joe Murphy he doesn’t live in this world:

Officials: Woman Beaten to Death for Burning Quran Was Wrongly Accused

Yeah, lucky Joe.

Summing Up

Well, where’s this going? In the words of Lisa, one of the two retractors:

“Myself, and I assume everyone involved, want to move on. Please respect that wish.”

I’ve not seen an update from Myers and co, so I guess he must be respecting that wish. Yes, that must be why they’ve not wanted to admit they were wrong to presume the accusers were telling the truth and the accused is guilty. I mean, had Joe’s case gone ahead and failed (yes, simply failed to prove libel, not that Joe had actually harassed) then they would have been all over this like a rash.

The trouble is, outside this crappy behaviour most people think that PZ Myers is probably a good guy – No, Pitters, really, he is. He wants to do the right thing, and he often does. I still read his blog. It’s good enough often enough, when he isn’t a) being a shit of an ideologue with his brand of feminism, b) being a shit with anyone that doesn’t meet his ideal.

Yes, you can still be a good guy while being a bit of a shit from time to time, or when you’re a bit obsessive about unreasonable standards of perfection – ironic given how much grief he gives people for being a bit of a shit occasionally, or simply for persisting in calling out his smears.

That sort of hyperbole just has so many people looking at Myers right now and thinking, WTF?

This is the shit that shows that someone that has a desire for social justice has turned into an ideologue – a Social Justice Warrior!

Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’t think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative.

The Knowledge Argument

Garvey kindly reminds us of this ‘astonishing’ argument, with a summary of it:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

The “who is, for whatever reason” is a whopping big clue that the whole thing isn’t well thought out. This argument is using a thought experiment set in a magical world, and so one shouldn’t be surprised when magic comes out the at end.

Some practicalities first. These aren’t pertinent to the basic argument but do show how easily philosophers can ditch aspects of reality to invent a magical world factory that manufactures magical worlds that have no bearing on the real world.

Does Mary have a normal evolved human brain and body? Does she have red blood in her vessels and blue blood in her veins? Does any pressure on her eyes not stimulate her brain so that she sees what we take to be red, such that when she comes out the room she recognises red.

Was Mary brought up in this room so that she never experienced colour at all? How did her education proceed? By machines? How well could her brain have developed to engage in the science necessary to show she knows all there is to know about the physical nature of colour as experienced by humans? How exactly do you justify anything in this thoughtless experiment that makes it at all realistic, or even remotely pertinent to the problem?

I know, much of this isn’t the point of the argument. We are supposed to take it on face value that such a Mary could exist. Well, why come up with any arbitrary un-real conditions at all? The purpose of the exact conditions that Jackson describes has a sole purpose of refuting physicalism, so the conditions are set up to do just that.

But, let’s play the game. The results of playing the game are the following possibilities:

If Mary really did know everything about colour then she knew enough to stimulate in her own physical brain the experience of colour, even though coloured light didn’t enter her eyes. I take it you, dear reader, hasn’t seen pink elephants, but enough imagination, or with psychedelic or alcoholic inducement your brain can conjure them up. Well, if Mary really does know everything then she knows how to experience red internally, and when she sees the red tomato it’s just as she imagined.

Alternatively Mary didn’t know everything, and here we come to what amounts to Jackson’s bad definition of knowledge. We’ll come back to the Mary argument when we see what Garvey and Jackson make of it following Jackson’s conversion.

We have this other troublesome philosophical cock-up to deal with now – knowledge and the rather pitiful philosophical attempts to define it – JTB and all that crap. We have a lot to learn about knowledge, but here’s a simple understanding of it.

Knowledge and Consciousness

I think the problem for Jackson starts with an inadequate view of what knowledge might be. This is my view. I won’t beat about the bush justifying every aspect of this, but here’s a quick attempt to define knowledge, in my terms, as a physicalist. Ask questions if you want more.

Human brains are physical biological systems that react to input signals. These ‘signals’ in a broader sense are more varied than just the sense inputs. There are the DNA signals that contribute to brain development, and the physical-chemical-biological environment in which that development occurs – as food is transformed into chemicals that are transported and processed by cells, for example, or as psychological pressures alter the young brain. The brain is already a dynamic developing system from the start. On top of that comes the stimulation through the nerves: the internal ones from the body, the way they react to the external physical world through our many senses. All this builds a brain.

The brain forms patterns of neuronal connections, and they are a combination of static and dynamic conditions – connections come and go, but some connections are sustained by repeated triggering and maintained by dynamic processes at the junctions. The physics of atoms, ions, electrons, is churning at every point, chemistry is ongoing, the biological processes live on, even in what appear like static neurons that exist over time, and synaptic connections that remain in place for a long time. The static appearance belies the dynamism.

In this system patterns form and can be re-triggered. Memory is knowledge. But at the basic level of neurons and synapses it is only meaningless data. Zoom in on a tiny region of active computer memory and you won’t be able to tell if the states of its bits represent points on an image or parts of a number on a spreadsheet. The bits have meaning only in a ‘context’. So too with neurons in the brain.

And context is what meaning and knowledge is all about.

A person blind from birth has his sight restored. He looks at his wristwatch and can tell the time using sight, because his brain has built a contextual map where this thing on his wrist, through touch, has meaning, and it doesn’t take much for his brain to put the visual stimulus into that context. But someone points out a wall clock to him and it is a meaningless object. He can see the hands on the clock, the figures on it, but the context means nothing, and he does not ‘know’ this object.

As a personal experiment watch that common panel show game of zooming out of a close-up on some object until someone recognises what it is. This is the use of context. What might start as a small patch of colour, becomes a shape, but only a shape of no consequence, but as the zoom out continues other shapes and lines come into play, until BANG!, the Eureka moment, your brain has suddenly found a context for all those lines and shapes, as the image has reached sufficient content to be recognised.

Watch a skilful artist compose a picture with broad messy brush strokes, and then marvel when the picture starts to trigger meaningful components and at last you realise he is painting a landscape. Or watch with comic effect the emerging image as a cartoonist appears to have draw a naked women, only with last few brush strokes it becomes a face and you are shamed into admitting to having a filthy mind.

Knowledge is nothing but data in a larger contextual framework.

Humans emerge into the world knowingly, knowing they have knowledge, through the use of their brains. This feeling of having a mind is our first self-aware view of the world, and we take ‘the mental’ to be the primary way of seeing the world. It’s hard to know when this arises in infancy, because one has to go through lots of preliminary stages to acquire the brain function to be able to contemplate the notion of self-awareness, and by the time you get there you have left behind the unaware self in which that recognition was formulated.

It’s difficult to say how much we rely on language to help us better frame concepts in clear ways – might non-linguistically assisted concepts be more like an animal’s view of the world? Hard to say, because the human brain has evolved the capacity for language – though the specific language may not matter. Some apes can acquire limited language that is not up to the human level of capability, but still goes beyond the the natural capability of their species. To what extent does language contribute to knowledge? It appears quite a lot. But what is knowledge like in an animal without language? The origins of knowledge and of the development of knowledge understanding in the brain is so lost in infancy (and as a species lost in our evolutionary past) that we appear to ourselves as somewhat fully formed thinkers – albeit young naive ones.

We watch our children grow and become independent thinking minds – it’s a fascinating time from about one year old, to maybe about five, from where their learning becomes increasingly more like that of an adult. Repetition is used to fix knowledge in the brain – the words of songs, the names of characters on TV and in books. Working with favourite picture books is fascinating. We see a ‘mind’ evolve and emerge. Is this the process of creating an early context from within which future data takes its place to become knowledge in turn?

What we learn later is that we, the species, evolved from simpler creatures that had an entirely physical interaction with the world: the physical interaction caused by the electromagnetic forces that prevent atoms passing by each other – this is what gives physical contact it’s effect in such a small scale vacuous world of atoms, and later through chemical signals crossing cell and multicellular boundaries.

But, the action of sensory neurons and brain neurons is just more of the same. The brain neurons are, in all significant respects in this regard, the same as sensory neurons, but within the brain their greatest interaction is with similar neurons inside the skull, and there are relatively a few points of contact with peripheral neuron channels. The brain is as much a physically empirical entity as any single celled organism. On mass, they interact in such a way that the brain as a whole senses its own neutrons sensing itself, observes itself observing itself, and the end result is consciousness and self-awareness.

To figure out what consciousness is, don’t ask what it feels like to be a bat. Ask what it feels like to be a self-monitoring complex system that acquires data and stores it in complex contextual patterns such that when a pattern is retriggered by an external sensory event the ‘context’, the knowledge, is sparked into life, and in doing that the system ‘knows’, it is observing its own observing of a pattern, and the context of the pattern gives it meaning, illustrating to itself its knowledge. So, what is it like to be such a system? It is like this, like you and me being conscious, acquiring, reflecting upon and using knowledge.

This is quite different from the philosophical traditional view of knowledge. This sort of knowledge does not have to be true or justified, and I’m not so sure the holder of it has to actually believe it – not knowingly, for we seem to have a lot of knowledge that emerges from the depths, sometimes remarkably right, and often laughably wrong. So that gets rid of the need for JTB in its entirety.

The religious have knowledge when they tell us all about their religion. They use their scriptures to justify it, they believe it, generally, and they think it is true, generally. This is knowledge, about their religion. It may be that the propositions that their religions make about gods, miracles, and other stuff, do not correspond to a reality out there beyond their brains. This is a correspondence theory or truth, where truth relates to how well knowledge in someone’s head (the contextualised patterns that cause conscious ideas to have contextual meaning) corresponds to the external world. But that does not mean they have no knowledge of gods; but rather means that their knowledge of gods are inventions.

I think of religious knowledge and theology debated in seminaries as being nothing more that Star Trek conventions that result in offshoots of comics and stories not in the original, they expand on the original fiction with yet more fiction. Apologies to all the Trekkies I might have offended, because when you listen to what some religious people say you realise that they are in total fantasy worlds rather than science fiction ones – at least in science fiction there is often some requirement that there be some credibility to the inventions.

What about scientific knowledge? Scientific theories and explanations that help us understand the world are our inventions too. But they have that essential correspondence with the world that gives us a far greater claim to their truth and utility.

I accept all the problems of such a contingent correspondence theory. It is entirely contingent on the persuasiveness of evidence. And theists, among others, find it hard to deal with that. Problems for another time. As I said, I won’t justify every aspect of this here. I am simply presenting my view, in order to set a context of what follows. In that context, dualism is a necessary feature of most religions. But I’m amazed that any non-religious scientist of philosopher would fall for it.

The Garvey Interview

As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”.

Well, that’s a load of crock. The steam whistle is a very direct influence on the locomotive’s machinery – it’s part of that machinery. It’s effect on the primary locomotive function is simply minor, without ‘significant’ influence, but not without influence.

You can see how this is a simple error for a dualist to make. If you are of a dualist persuasion you can imagine that things and events might not have any physical impact in some situations. One might, for example, dismiss the physical effect of light on an object – light seems far too ephemeral, in that it appears to present no obvious physical force; it does not move objects. But of course it does. It moves electrons into raised energy states, it imparts energy that on a large scale results in motion. A laser of sufficient intensity can quickly burn away surfaces of matter – in effect move by vaporisation – and yet the dull light from a candle in a room appears not to have any physical impact on the room. But it surely does – hold your hand over it and you’ll feel convected heat, but hold your hand close enough in front and you’ll feel the radiant heat.

The ‘mind’ is a model for that aspect of the brain’s working that appears superficially to have no influence on the actual physical nature of the brain, and under dualism the non-influence is mutual – except that as if by magic the mind causes the body to do things. As an abstract model of some functionality of the brain the mind only appears distinct. But the brain consumes energy as it thinks. Thinking is a physical electro-chemical, biological, thermodynamic process of the brain itself. This is more obvious now than it once was, and so it is becoming harder to hold to a dualist detachment. Everything we experience in the world has physical effects on it. The world, the universe, is a total interacting system. Even the vacuum of space is at the very least permitted by photons from the stars, and nobody doubts the radiant power of the sun on a clear summer’s day. Materialism forces itself upon us, and dualism has no supporting evidence.

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts

No. You simply didn’t include the brain functions of perception of red in the knowledge Mary had. That’s still a physical theory about the brain perceiving – even if as yet still a poorly understood one. This is dualism of the gaps. And it illustrates the fault of the Knowledge Argument. The statement that Mary knew everything there is to know, is false, if physicalism holds.

If there is something extra, then either it’s physical and she didn’t know it, or you have neglected to include the hidden premise of there being some non-material knowledge unavailable to her that isn’t part of the physical science, in which case you are affirming the consequent.

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all.

Not very convincingly if Garvey’s piece is any sign.

He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been …

Why is Garvey not wondering how hard Jackson must have worked his cognitive wonders to remain a dualist for so long, if Garvey is not a dualist? What sort of non-dualist is he?

Jackson explains away his change of heart:

I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.

This is abysmal philosophy. This is going right into my piece on ‘obvious’ screw ups. Stating the Bleeding Obvious. Why do philosophers insist on appealing to the obvious? Have they learned nothing from psychology and neuroscience, let alone a long history of illusions and delusions.

After explaining the origins of the original article Jackson says:

The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same.

Well, it is pretty much affirming the consequent when you piece the bits together. But interestingly here we see the very human Jackson responding to a perceived insult rather than a rational criticism.

That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.

And Garvey says:

He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

I wonder if that’s irritation at Churchland, or irritation with himself that a purveyor of reason could be so easily moved by inconsequential tone.

Garvey tells us more from a re-read of the papers, and in particular Churchland’s criticism:

Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

I can understand it might be frustrating to have made a mistake, but to be irritated by the fact that the mistake was pointed out, in some ‘tone’?

Garvey gives us a bit more, and includes Nagel’s bat thing:

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

The subjectivity of our personal view of our consciousness is a red herring when it comes to studying consciousness. We can study cosmology, using science to tell us much about the universe, but looking up at the stars, enjoying a sunset, reading the digital data from a deep space observation, …, all that humans do in science is done through the personal perspective of our personal consciousness, but we don’t let that get in the way of finding out how it all works.

Why is the brain any different? Why must one presuppose there is a dualist mind just because it feels like there is one? It is one of the dumbest philosophical remains of pre-scientific times – excusable back then, but not now.

Garvey continues to quote the interviewed Jackson’s take on that original argument:

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

And Garvey tells us:

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

What? The dog analogy is totally bogus. To use the dog analogy correctly you’d have to use it in the way the knowledge argument puts things: Mary knows all breeds of dogs there are. When she leaves the lab she does not see any breed of dog she hasn’t seen before. But, using the erroneous knowledge argument: Mary knows all breeds of dogs (except the one we are hiding from her) and when she leaves the room she sees a breed she hasn’t seen before, therefore Mary could not have seen all breeds of dog, and so physicalism is false.

The original knowledge argument does some dog breed, sorry, colour knowledge, hiding from Mary. It hides that breed of knowledge called personal acquired experiential knowledge but makes the false claim that Mary knows all there is to know about breeds of colour knowledge. By excluding the experience of colour the argument is presupposing that such an experience is not included in all knowledge, that it is not part of the physical world, and that, hey presto, the argument proves there is more than the physical: affirming the consequent.

Jackson again, reflecting on his dualism:

We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

I’m afraid I am stumped by my (our) lack of understanding of brains, a failing that is preventing me from understanding how a supposedly good mind can fall for utter fantasy: “these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world” – No they are not. They are very much in it as a mechanistic view. All that’s missing is an appreciation and an understanding of what complex mechanisms, as instantiated in human brains, can actually do.

For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it.

It isn’t obvious experientially, because we feel dualistic, because the brain’s self-monitoring doesn’t go so deep as to reveal the biological mechanisms to itself. But following science and all it exposes about the nature of the world, and the total lack of anything actually dualistic outside this ‘apparent’ dualism, and with lots of other brain anomalies to give us a clue that feelings on the matter might be mistaken, isn’t that enough to make the dualist stop and think?

Apparently not. Dualists, like their theological comrades, seem to be stuck with inescapable biases. Except now, Jackson seems to be escaping. Let’s see how he’s doing.

I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

Well, that may be the decline of his dualism, but it’s a long way off the simplicity of physicalism. In physicalism as I see it the brain is a mechanism that monitors itself monitoring the world, and monitors itself monitoring itself, possibly through many channels. What emerges is a process or collection of processes that reports to itself. And, this is what it feels like when the brain does this. Conscious experience is a much higher version of what it feels like to be a bat, or what it feels like to be a computer program, to be a thermostat.

We only label it consciousness in the way we label a storm a storm, without labelling any rain drop or moving molecule of air a storm. The storm emerges as something that human brains can recognise and categorise through experience of seeing storms. Consciousness emerges somewhere as we progress from forming our first differentiated brain cells to the stage of passing the self-awareness test of an infant and going on to be a self-contemplative adult.

The odd thing about consciousness that’s different to a storm is that the storm is categorised by the brain as being something outside the brain, while consciousness is being categorised by the very brain experiencing the consciousness internally, such that it becomes the brains identity, and mistakenly thought of as a dualist mind.

Of course, that early zygote consists of cells that are experiencing their world too – just not in the silly way in which the religious imagine a soul to be inhabiting it, and not with the complexity and self-referential experience of a fully formed brain.

Jackson doesn’t seem interested in any of this real physicalist stuff. His focus is not the brain but this mysterious self-reflective view of a dualist mind trying to think of itself as a physicalist thing. He seems confused to me:

When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.

When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation.

There are two types of effect we think of as optical illusions:

  • Optical Effect – The bent pencil as it passes from air to water. This is a genuine effect of optics that delivers light to the eye in different ways according to the medium. This is just what a telescope does. Light passes through a medium such that distant small looking objects appear nearer and so larger.
  • Brain (Mental) Illusion – These are not strange optical effects. The light coming from the parallel lines that Jackson refers to is genuinely representing parallel lines, but they appear not to be parallel. Dangle a wire frame Necker cube, rotating, at a certain distance, an maintain your view and it will appear to change direction. The former is caused by the brain’s interpretation of the lines as being non-parallel. The latter is caused because the light coming from the Necker cube is consistent, to without our perceptual capacity, with rotation in either direction, and the brain can’ make up its ‘mind’.

The problem I see Jackson having is he’s still trying to deal with this in non-physical terms, in philosophical language terms that do not use any knowledge about brains. He’s working in the wrong domain. And if he can see illusions so clearly, why can’t he see the ‘mental’ nature of illusions such that they make dualism ‘obviously’ and illusion rather than obviously true?

Garvey asks Jackson for his physicalist view of Mary:

Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.

Or, you could say that colour experience is part of colour knowledge, possibly the main part – how could we come to the other colour knowledge that the Mary problem speaks of, formulate theories of colour, understanding the science of colour, had we been blind animals?

When the knowledge argument claims Mary knows everything there is to know while in the room is not only false, it’s missing the biggest physicalist example of colour knowledge, the acquisition through the eyes of colour data.

The other flaw with the Mary problem is that Mary is an evolved human being and as such may well have internal brain experiences that correspond to seeing colour – such as when one has a bump on the head, presses on the eyelid or eye, stimulating the visual areas of the brain. Is it the case that blind people see colour because they have colour capable brains but don’t recognise the colour experience for what it is? Many questions go unanswered with the Mary knowledge problem.

So, another option is that Mary has a colour capable brain and actually does see colour, and that with all the other science data does in fact have a brain that experiences colour, so that when she leaves the room and sees her first colour object she says, “Oh yes, that’s red. I’ve seen that in my internal experiences.” In which case Mary does not learn anything new on leaving the room.

Yet another option is that the science information is so good that it is able, without introducing colour light through the eyes, to cause brain events that Mary experiences as colour, such that when she leaves the room and encounters red she gets has the same sort of brain experience. But, I suspect that furturistic notion of the capabilities of brain stimulation would be too much for a poor old philosopher stuck in the philosophical dark ages.

I’m not impressed with Jackson’s physicalism at all.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,…

So, not really clear on it then.

But if we do the physics … but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.

Along with neuroscience, biology, psychology, … Exactly.

Garvey chips in with his perspective, and it all sounds very wooish:

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Oh for crying out loud. Physicalism is neutral, neither optimistic or pessimistic – it’s prersepctive of the reality of the brain-mind issue, weighing up evidence and argument. Why do philosophers cloak their arguments in emotive terms so often?

Show that there is any evidence whatsoever that there might be anything to any ‘mental’ dualist ideas. While you’re doing that, reflect on how our ideas of the mental world probably came about because we didn’t have an understanding of small physical scale large time scale changes such that evolution could result in complex biological mechanisms that do this thing we do.

There never was any need to pretend that consciousness is something fundamentally different from physical stuff in action. We simply made a mistake because that’s the only perspective we had. As a species and as individuals we sort of woke up after a long empirical non-thinking past and started thinking, and one of the things we thought was, wow, I think, therefore I’m a mind.

Yes, there are unknown reaches of reality that we haven’t and maybe can’t ever explore. But we know as much as we do thank’s to the physical sciences. And I include what are perceived to be mental sciences like psychology: psychology is a black box science that came before white box neuroscience. Think of psychology to neuroscience as the ideal gas laws are to particle physics – large scale science based on external appearances without any information on the small scale action. Except that we’re talking about the different between a balloon and a brain, so the brain is far more complex.

Garvey goes on to bring up the ‘slugist’ analogy from Jackson’s past, as Garvey seems keen to rescue dualism. It’s another dumb analogy. The slugists go on to discover more of the same type of physical stuff far above the sea bed. They might even discover very clever human automata. They don’t discover woo. So, no, the mistake the slugists make isn’t the same as Garvey imagines physicalists make. On the other hand the soft-minded sluggists make exactly the kind of mistake dualists make: imagining there’s something for which there is no evidence, and that pulling crap analogies out of their asses to support the idea. Never any actual evidence though. Of course the slugist is yet another sort of affirming the consequent.

And so Jackson responds to Garvey’s prompt for what this story tells us:

i.e. We don’t know everything …

What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us.

Yes, it is common sense to think that there are things that we don’t know about the world. But dualism amounts to giving up on physicalist on the off chance there might be fairies. This is exactly the game that the religious play.

Theist – We don’t know everything. There might be a God. So I think there is one.

Dualist – We don’t know everything. There might be a dualist mind. So I think there is one.

Fairyist – We don’t know everything. There might be fairies. So I think there are.

Chopra – We don’t know everything. There might be a fundamental consciousness everywhere. So I think there is.

Homeopathist – We don’t know everything. There might be a real beneficial effect of my woo meds. So I think there is.

Repeat, for unicorns, ghosts, the afterlife (religious or not), …

These are exactly comparable positions of picking one’s favourite woo, and from the fact that we don’t know everything assume ‘my’ pet woo is true.

It is embarrassingly shamefully awful philosophy.

There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’ … there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world.

Fine, but just as long as you accept that you are letting fairies and astrology. Perhaps fairies are so mysterious that they only interact with this world by moving my keys from where I left them. Perhaps the effects of astrology are so imperceptible that we can live our lives as if it’s total bollocks. Seriously Frank, just play out these silly interpretations of basic epistemological uncertainty the way you do with the dualist mind.

We act as if there are no fairies, not because we have refuted every crackpot notional story about them that makes them sound feasible, but because no positive evidence exists for them.

Astrology has not been proven beyond all doubt not to work, it has been proven beyond all doubt that it appears not to make a blind bit of difference is there’s anything in it. Saying that astrology doesn’t work at all is just a learned shortcut for making this same point but skipping the unnecessary over humility that you are appealing to.

It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one.

No it isn’t!

The matter v anti-matter dichotomy is arbitrary. What we call anti-matter they call matter, and we are their anti-matter (I’m ignoring the total bollocks of ‘other worlds’ that supposes someone like us. Another day.) They are arbitrary by definition. Like 1/0, true/false, +/-.

So the arbitrary nature of that dichotomy is nothing like the scale of epistemological uncertainty about unicorns or minds.

Garvey tries to take it in but remains puzzled at jacksons conversion:

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Because he’s right for the wrong reasons. His isn’t physicalism in its strictest sense, but using some vague airy fairy philosopher language with outdated concepts to try to come to terms with the appreciation that the knowledge argument is full of holes.

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

No, there isn’t. It really is very simple. Start with this:

1 – Colour is experiential knowledge. It’s brain states and the conscious processes of multiple levels of feedback recycling signals. It’s the brain knowing what red is.

Then some possible interpretations of what’s going on in the room:

2a – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen red had no knowledge of it, so she was lacking complete physicalist experiential knowledge.

2b – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen colour in the room, did experience rods and cones being stimulated by her rubbing her eyes such that her brain experienced and gained knowledge of red, because she has an evolved brain and eyes with that capacity. This is contestable, based on any experiments about depriving eyes and brains of the correct stimulation during development. However, I know how thought experiments stretch truths to make exactly the point the author wants them to make, so maybe skip this. Hence …

2c – It was correct that Mary knew everything because the screen emitted science included mesmerising signals that stimulated an experience of red.

And corresponding events outside the room:

3a – From 2a, Mary gains the physicalist experience of red on the eyes and its corresponding stimulation of the brain. But since the full knowledge premise was false, the knowledge argument fails.

3b – From 2b, Mary sees red on leaving the room and says, “Oh, there’s some red.” No new knowledge is gained. The argument fails.

3c – From 2c, Mary recognises red on leaving the room. The argument fails.

Is the conclusion of all this that physicalism is necessarily true? No. Because my interpretation above presupposes colour experience is a phsyicalist mechanistic brain effect and that consciousness is a process of such a brain.

All this goes to show is that the Mary colour scientist knowledge argument is entirely useless at showing us anything except how poor philosophy can be. It shows us how philosophers can waste years on such a poor thoughtless experiment.

God Probabilities Are Pointless, Even From Physicists

Physicist Sean Carroll indulges one of his physics colleagues in a post Guest Post: Don Page on God and Cosmology. Sean:

Don Page is one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical gravitational physics and cosmology, as well as a previous guest-blogger around these parts. … He is also, somewhat unusually among cosmologists, an Evangelical Christian, and interested in the relationship between cosmology and religious belief.

From here on I’ll address Don on his piece, by picking up only the statements I think are really problematic. I’m basically repeating what I wrote in the comments section, with some minor mods.

So, Don you say this:

… such as my assumption that the world is the best possible …

Why would anyone make such an assumption? Based on what? Compared to what? What’s a worse world? What are the metrics? The comment by Phillip Helbig says it all:

The optimist believes that he lives in the best of all possible worlds. So does the pessimist.

Back to you Don:

I mainly think philosophical arguments might be useful for motivating someone

Like propaganda? It is clear that theists are manipulating and abusing philosophy, logic, reason, evidence, to make it best fit their beliefs.

… raise the prior probability someone might assign to theism. I do think that if one assigns theism not too low a prior probability …

You shouldn’t have a prior probability about something for which you have zero data. The prior probability isn’t 100%, isn’t 0%, isn’t 50% – it’s unknown. No data. Making a guess, or expressing a bias from personal religiosity and assigning a probability is doing a great injustice to probability.

the historical evidence for the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus

What, like hearsay of Josephus passed off as evidence? There is no historical record of the words or teachings of Jesus. The death? We can barely support his existence, by extensive hearsay, but as ‘evidence’ it’s no better than claims made about Mohammed’s revelations. By the way, how do you set the prior probability that Mohammed was telling the truth about his revelations, or the likelihood he was lying, or that he was delusional? What’s the prior probability that Jesus was a nutty preacher. Using the statistics of what we do know about how common nutty preachers were at the time the best evidence we have is he’s one of many. I’d really like to know on what basis all this is judged remotely true.

Ben Goran in the comments refers to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Good choice.

… can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high.

This really will not do. For miraculous things to happen, such as a resurrection, you need a God. You presuppose a God. Then you find stuff that’s in a book that says, look, here’s a miracle of that God – without any evidence it happened beyond hearsay, and again I remind you your hearsay is competing with that about Mohammed. Then you say, look, it’s all real, Christianity rules, OK.

But if one thinks a priori that theism is extremely improbable, then the historical evidence for the Resurrection would be discounted and not lead to a high posterior probability for theism.

Don, you are mistaken in that direction too. This is really important! There is no need to think theism is improbable. One has only to be totally open to it, and then look at the evidence. There is none. What is offered as evidence turns out to be: unevidenced hearsay, nothing that can’t be illusions and delusions, lies and propaganda – and all these have at least some actual prior probabilities because we know that these latter human frailties do actually occur.

I tend to favor a Bayesian approach in which one assigns prior probabilities

But Bayesian stuff works only when you have actual statistics to form your prior probabilities. Even if they are as flaky as much statistical evidence is (and we know how we often reach wrong conclusions about the efficacy of medicines in that arena), at least it’s actual data of a sort. But for universe creation and gods it’s no better than a pretence at mathematical credibility when there’s no data to work with.

… when the product is normalized by dividing by the sum of the products for all theories

This is crazy talk. Are probabilities based on the human capacity to imagine ideas, invent fantasies? is the correct probability determined by one’s own credibility? This is not to be treated like some meta-analysis of numerous sets of actual statistical results. It’s a meta-analysis of guesses. It’s pointless.

… since we don’t yet have _any_ plausible complete theory for the universe to calculate the conditional probability, given the theory, of any realistic observation.

So, the correct response to the question of whether there is some sort of intelligent agent creator of universes is to say: I haven’t got the foggiest clue.

From there proceed to act on what we do have. The empirical investigation of the universe and what that tells us. Our understanding of minute physics may still be open to question, but at the level of chemistry, creating medicines, building planes that don’t fall out the sky randomly – and it’s all quite mechanistic, naturalistic.

The working conclusion, then, is to live **as if** this: that what we empirically find is all there is, whether it is or not, because if we cannot detect a god of any kind knowingly then whether there is one or not makes no difference. It really is that simple.

However, since to me the totality of data, including the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God …

What? We’ll come back to evidence shortly, but for now let’s just go back to an earlier point, from above:

can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high

And let’s put these together:

  1. the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God
  2. can lead to a posterior probability for theism [i.e. there is a God]

So, postulating a God basically leads to a posterior probability that there is a God. And, while we’re at it, the assertion that the resurrection occurred is used to show that Jesus was resurrected [because he really was the son of God].

Doesn’t that look just a tad suspicious? Don, that looks embarrassing to me.

This is no more than affirming the consequent, invoking a circular argument. Don, you could only make an argument if you had good evidence of a God, and then good evidence of a naturalism busting resurrection. You have evidence of neither. You are presupposing there’s a God that can do stuff like resurrections, taking one of the many myths and taking that to be caused by this presupposed God, and then using that resurrection as the evidence of the divine Jesus, who is God. What? Seriously, What?

But on the matter of evidence, the pretend evidence for the resurrection is most simply explained by being the myth of one of the many myth asserting religions, and that people that believed in gods in ancient times were probably even more gullible than people today. Don, you think they may not have been so gullible. How gullible do you think Scientologists are? What are your probabilities for the existence of Thetans? How about Joseph Smith? Not convinced? Well, a hell of large number of reasonably well educated 21st century people believe that nonsense. Can you see why it’s far more reasonable to think these ancients were duped, or self-duped?

I do believe by faith…

Oh no! Don, please! Not the faith get out of jail card? Well, okay, in which case you can dismiss all you said before this point as it means nothing now in this context. All that effort doing just what William Lane Craig does, pretending to use reason and evidence and probabilities picked out of your nether regions – even though you reject some of WLC’s reasoning. And all it really took is faith. Why not faith in Mohammed? Well, you’re a Christian. Is that how you do your physics?

We simply do not know whether or not our universe had a beginning, but there are certainly models

See, you can do it correctly if you try. We simply do not know. And, for God there are no models that are based on other confirmed models of physics and cosmology. Sean’s work and your work in physics and cosmology does not come out of nowhere, but all religions do: there’s always someone that we know invented a religion, or the origins of the religion are lost entirely in time. You really should be applying this cosmological scepticism to God: we do not know and we have no models and no data. There are no measurements, no mathematic models, nothing but hearsay and the occasional claims of messianic individuals that think they are hooked up with their own god.

In summary, I think the evidence from fine tuning is ambiguous

Ambiguous? It’s down right dumb. What do we know about the extra-universe ‘physics’ of universe creation, such that it does not necessarily cause universes just like this one. What if all universe necessarily must have the physics of this one, because of some as yet unknown extra-universe feature? How do we know that all these universes are not such that only initial conditions determine whether life evolves abundantly, rarely or not at all. We don’t know that the constants that **allow** evolved life actually **necessitate** evolved life. With different initial conditions it could be that the universe evolve without ever experiencing intelligent life that goes on to wonder if the universe is fine tuned. We’d then have a ‘fine tuned’ universe tuned with no tuned products in it. What reason would we have to think such a universe is fine tuned?

There’s a big difference between:

– Speculative interpretations of limited cosmological data with multiple speculatively viable theories


– Believing ancient religious stories based on stuff that’s indistinguishable from all the other stories you too would pass off as myth

That difference is that with physics one does not tend to make assertions about behaviour any morality based on them – unless they very specifically inform our understanding of human behaviour and morality, such as evolution, psychology, neuroscience. There are no moral or behavioural prescriptions or proscriptions associated with Sean’s preference for Everett, but there are real human consequences that result from people believing stuff for which there is no evidence, in religion, and the consequences are all too often not good ones.

Look at it this way:

Problem 1: A company makes bags of 100 black balls, but manufacturing errors cause some balls to be white. We know the limits: 100 black, 100 white. We know from experience that people complain if they have more than 40 white balls. We do some tests and stuff. We play with probabilities. We use Bayes. We run controlled trials. Whatever. It’s real if uncertain data. What’s the probability of getting a bag with 100 black balls? We can start to look into it, come to some conclusions, do more measurements, more sampling, more calculations.

Problem 2: How are universes made? We don’t know. As an analogy for this, this is me telling you there’s a bag out there; possibly an infinitely large bag; and it might have some balls in it or it might not. If it has, then some might be black, or not. Some might be white, or not. The bag might contain refrigerators rather than balls, or not. Now, what are you going to tell me about the content of the bag – the probability that there are 100 black balls in the bag, that there’s God in the bag, ten gods, …? Nothing. Oh, and there might not actually be a bag out there; there might just be this universe.

Problem 1 is the sort of problem we can play with. Problem 2 is God stuff. The former is the reality we have to deal with. The latter is make believe – faith, indeed.

Mehdi Hasan Destroys Islam

Mehdi Hasan destroys Islam. He doesn’t mean to, but as he thinks he’s distancing Islam from ISIS he picks so many reasons for rejecting Islam. Good job, Mehdi.

In this online CNN video, Does ISIS have any religious legitimacy?, Mehdi Hasan debates with Graeme Wood over Wood’s piece on ISIS. Mehdi responded in his own article, which had lots of holes in it and begged and received criticism. Poor sap Mehdi just can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth.

Mehdi Hasan has put a lot of effort into declaring ISIS to be un-Islamic to the point of denying they are Islamic at all.

Mehdi insists there are motivations other than Islam for people joining ISIS. Even if religion were not the main motivating factor that gets them going, that wouldn’t mean they were not Islamic in what they do, in what they believe. When Christians go to war quoting God’s words it doesn’t make them non-Christian. May make them awful Christians, but still Christian. That someone has some other prime motivation for what they do, but they are Muslims when they do it, and use their Islamic texts selectively to justify themselves, does not make them un-Islamic.

Mehdi does not use all the texts of Islam – he is a liberal or moderate (hard to tell, he’s so slippery) Muslim. So he too is uni-Islamic, by his own standards of reasoning. ISIS are cherry picking, using a fringe interpretation? Sure. But ‘nice’ Muslims like Mehdi have to cherry pick too, to ignore the crazy stuff, or they have to come up with ‘scholarly’ reasons for justifying it ‘in context’.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to take what ISIS say as ‘gospel’. I don’t. But I don’t take as gospel anything Mehdi Hasan says on Islam. Muslims denouncing other Muslims is a Takfir game, and Mehdi is just as guilty of it as ISIS when they denounce liberal and moderate Muslims.

Mehdi is sceptical about ISIS claims to be holy warriors? Why? Religions are not necessarily non-warrior like, non-cruel, non-peaceful. The claims in Islam to be the religion of peace are contradicted explicitly by many parts of the texts. And if we must take those cruel texts with some nuance and context why can’t we apply nuance and context to the explicit claim that Islam the religion of peace? Double standards. Mehdi, like many religious people, likes to apply nuance and context to excuse the awful texts, but then come over all literal when it suits them. It is a literalist view that there really is a god, Allah.

Religion is the factor. Not the only one, but arguably the major one. No persecuted Jews or Hindus are radicalised to the extent that many Muslims are, such that international terrorism by so many Islamic groups plagues our age. That there are other factors doesn’t negate religion as a significant one if not the primary one. All the terrorist groups killing around the world in the name of Islam are testament to the Islamic nature of their terrorist activities.

Mehdi thinks that people are leaving London to join ISIS for other reasons than their Islamic perspective. The Islamic texts excuse the radicalisation in response to other factors in a way that other religions currently do not. It’s easy for Christians to distance themselves from the older texts of the Bible.

And what of the idea that ISIS are an unscholarly fringe cult and not really true Islam? Doesn’t matter. Compared to Christianity Islam is a minority religion. So is Judaism. We don’t deny someone’s claim to religion based on minority status.

Why can’t *very* Islamic be used to describe those that adhere to a more literal interpretation of the most vile cherry picked texts? Mehdi is not *very* Islamic according to conservatives that don’t accept his liberalism.

Mehdi wonders, “Why can’t we find *learned* scholars…” to support ISIS? This is very convenient move by scholars that want to distance themselves from ISIS. But we can find many scholars in Islamic states spouting similar rhetoric to ISIS on many counts. Saudi is executing people for trivial acts that shouldn’t even be crimes (and Mehdi the liberal would agree). Mehdi mentions the Grand Mufti of Saudi? Really? has he been tuning into that guy’s recent bollocks? You need to pick better advocates for your ‘nice’ Islam, Mehdi.

That the Islamic credentials of ISIS are disputed does not mean they are not Islamic. Sunni v Shia go through this process of denouncing each other. I’ve been told by Shias that I should listen only to good Shia scholars. And by Sunnis that say that only Sunni scholars have a correct interpretation. Takfir talking twits.

“They tell western journalists that they are serious about their faith, and we believe them…” – And inherent in that statement is the implication that we should believe Mehdi’s version of Islam is Islamic? Get over yourself, Mehdi. It is sufficient to simply observe. If they talk like Muslims, walk like Muslims, behead like Saudi Muslims, and match their behaviour to the texts, then ISIS are Muslims.

Mehdi foolishly appeals to other ideological states to excuse Islam and reject ISIS. He mentions North Korea. We don’t consider North Korea to be democratic because they are not, by any sense of democracy. But there is no way that ISIS are not Islamic – they pray, follow the texts – even if they are extreme and have a brutal interpretation.

Wood: “They [ISIS scholars] are not making things up” – Well, no more than any other Muslim scholars. In a world of religious bullshit how do you judge the validity of one bullshitter over many others?

Mehdi again: Naive recruits are buying “Islam for Dummies”, so this shows they are not true Muslims? Does this happen often, all the time, for all recruits? Let’s put aside how often that happens. More important to note is that such dummies can turn to violence so easily and find justification for it in Islamic texts. This means that the Islamic texts are dangerous weapons!

Handing a Quran to an ignoramus is no better than giving a child a loaded automatic weapon. This ‘naive unscholarly’ point is not making a good case for Islam. Quite the opposite, it is endorsing the case made by Sam Harris. This is exactly what he has been saying, that many Muslims do in fact interpret the texts literally. No amount of scholarly mental gymnastics is going to fix this. In fact the more scholarly learning is require the more dangerous the raw texts are. They are awful texts. So, yes, Islam (as described in the texts) is the mother lode of bad ideas.

Wood: “They are serious about the texts.” Even if they are in disagreement with Muslim scholarship through the ages it does not mean they are not motivated by their religion.

Are ISIS a revolutionary form of Islam? If they are, that may mean that they are not practising Mehdi Hasan’s Islam; but that doesn’t mean it is not Islam.

Again, even if they were universally declared to be un-Islamic, and even if they said, “Look, we are not Muslims, we are not Islamic, but we’re using the Islamic texts to determine what we do.” then, that merely goes to show again how awful these texts are: they can be turned to such brutal use; they contain brutal prescriptions.

Mehdi asks again, why we should think them scholarly when *all of Islam* scholars, whether conservative or liberal, Sufi or Salafi, Sunni or Shia, reject ISIS. Come on Mehdi, all those factions reject each other, you twit. Note the implication that *all Muslims* have a unity to them – and people like Sam Harris get criticised for being too general in their language? A unity of convenience. The duplicity stinks to high heaven.

So, Harris says ‘Islam’ is bad, based on the texts and how far too many interpretations of it are barbaric, from the implementations of Sharia in some states, to the killing of people by Muslim mobs around the world, and even to the homophobic hatred expressed by ‘moderate’ Muslims. And for this his critics claim he is injuring ALL Muslims. But then, Muslims like Mehdi Hasan are quick to defend Islam, ALL Islam, while being part of the Islamic tradition that denounces fellow Muslims as un-Islamic. It’s impossible to have an honest debate with people like Mehdi Hasan.

Mehdi: “No serious person would call the Branch Davidians Christian?” Well, quite. But the Roman Catholics thought the Anglican Church of Henry VIII to be non-Christian. This happens throughout the ages. There are always schisms. Again, Islam even has a tool, Takfir, for dealing with this, where other faiths only have heresy.

Mehdi comes back to the religious novices. Again that isn’t a good response. It just shows how dangerous the texts are that they can be used to incite such novices to ideological violence.

Mehdi thinks drugs alcohol and petty crime are responsible? That’s bullshit. The fact that many of these people are bright promising students is completely ignored by Mehdi Hasan.

But, I take his point, that some of the ignorant youths joining ISIS are not well educated. But I take it further. Very few if any Muslims conform to scholarly Islam – they do their own reasonable thing – unless incited to riot and rage by clerics and other Islam Dummies. This isn’t really saying much for Islam. Christianity does a lot of saving souls of druggies, but Islam makes it easy to recruit them for ISIS? Mehdi, please, this is not a good case you are making.

Mehdi: ISIS is about real holy warriors trading in porn? Well, sexual interest has never been a bar to religious belief. Neither has child abuse. So, Islam is so bad that it can’t prevent you doing the very things that some of its teachings forbid? Islam really is crap isn’t it. You heard that from Mehdi Hasan. Islamic texts can be used to incite people to violence, AND can’t dissuade them from using porn. OK.

Mehdi explains that few extremists are Islamic scholars. Well, neither are most Muslims. But again, that doesn’t bode well when dangerous Islamic texts prescribing all sorts of punishments, such as stoning adulterers to death, are as freely available as dangerous guns in the US. Telling us that people that join ISIS aren’t real scholars tells us all we need to know about the Islamic texts: not to be used by non-scholars.

Mehdi, “They [ISIS] pepper their language with Islamic quotations. Of course they do, it’s the best way to recruit people.” – What? So, here we have Mehdi Hasan telling us how good the texts of Islam are for recruiting Jihadists. After spending so much time telling us it’s not about religion he now admits that the Islamic texts are great extremists recruitment texts! Incredible.

Mehdi thinks that the Nazi party isn’t explained by Mein Kampf? You need the Treaty of Versailles, he says, to understand the Nazis? What on earth is he talking about? Of course you can get a lot about the Nazis from Mein Kampf, but like the Quran it’s not the only texts that the Nazis depend on. And the Hadith supplement the Quran superbly for Jihadists recruitment. Well done Mehdi, ISIS Sales Rep of the Year. You cannot understand ISIS by watching its videos and taking them literally? Well, those sources help; and of course you can read the Quran and Hadith it to clinch it. Wood responds: could you understand Nazism without Mein Kampf? We have to understand what the ideology is. And it is Islamic, without a shadow of a doubt. That Mehdi Hasan invokes Takfir on ISIS, and they on him, is not really making a case of any virtue.

Mehdi belittles ISIS propaganda. Is it a fair representation of what an Islamic state would be like? No, surely not, we hope. But if you think that gets Islam a pass you are very much mistaken. If you think *any* Islamic state there has ever been is worth having you are not getting the message about what liberal non-Muslims find wrong with Islam (and, for the record, US Christianity is no good advert for Christianity).

Wood speaks to the dishonesty of Mehdi Hasan who wants to play down the Islamic aspect of their motivation as much as possible, and to blame the western states for creating this monster. There is only one point here we can make, but it does Islam no good:

So, the west intervenes and takes out some undemocratic dictator, and leaves a vacuum in which this mess can arise? No, it’s not a vacuum. It’s a history of divisive Islamic disputes that have arisen from the mess, to now take hold. The inability to build a liberal democracy, or even establish a stable Islamic state, is not a good advert for Islam. If the Iranian theocracy that persecutes Sunnis is not a clue to Mehdi Hasan that Islam is not a good thing, then he us surely blinded by his biases.

Mehdi thinks we drown out the voices that reject ISIS? No we do not. Because Islam in places like Saudi and Iran does not give us an Islam that is any better. They give an Islam that is merely more controlled, less chaotic. You cannot build a state that is so self destructive. ISIS is a poor example of a state of any kind, to be sure; but that does not in itself make it un-Islamic. Again, we are not drowning out the beheadings in Saudi, but Mehdi Hasan is, for he rarely mentions it. If anything, it is other Muslims, the majority of Muslims, or the majority power systems of the Islamic world, that drown out the truly liberal Muslims in so many Islamic states.

Wood: ISIS is not only not an inevitable outcome of Islam, it isn’t even an inevitable outcome of a literalist Islam. Quite, but that doesn’t say much for Islam. Islam is an enabler of ISIS because its texts can so easily be turned to that purpose. Try that with Humanism – what Humanist texts would drive hordes of Humanists to start terror campaigns to form a Humanist State that persecutes all other beliefs?

Mehdi does not deny the numbers and the threat of ISIS. He agrees we should take them seriously. But the problem is that all this *Not Islamic* nonsense is the biggest denials destruction I’ve ever seen anywhere. This is the subject. Not what we can do about ISIS, not how we can prevent recruitment. In fact the Islamophobia mongering of Mehdi Hasan and others is preventing an honest reflection within Islam, within British Islam. Everyone is so busy defending Islam they are by default defending ISIS. Their Islamophobia rhetoric is fuelling the victimhood that is inciting yet more young Muslims to join up. Great job at recruiting for ISIS Mehdi.

Mehdi acknowledges at last (a bit late in the game) that it makes no sense to have the debate without any religious discussion – something he has been trying to achieve – but, he thinks it dangerous to say they are very Islamic, or even more Islamic. But, Mehdi, it’s far more dangerous to deny their Islamic influence and play this Islamophobia card.

Mehdi thinks talking about their Islamic status gives them some substantive claim to being Islamic. Well, it does, because they are. Again, not your Islam, Mehdi, but that’s just you playing your dishonest Takfir game, which is their game too.

Mehdi disputes the idea that ISIS take their religion more seriously than most Muslims. This is indeed a contentious point, but not totally devoid of merit. Many Muslims, like people of most religions, are varied in their devoutness and adherence to the requirements of the texts. There are two measures that need to be taken together: literalism and seriousness (or piety). Many non-serious non-literalist Muslims are just like believers in many other religions – they believe in their god, but basically just want to do the ordinary stuff of living. A serious (pious) but non-literalist Muslim may still be comfortable with democratic liberalism, in that they are personally pious but don’t enforce that on anyone else, because they don’t take the prescription to spread Islam so literally. But a seriously pious literalist of Islam is a dangerous beast.

Mehdi worries we might be throwing the majority of Muslims ‘under the bus’. This is nonsense. Islam is already a bad religion with all the states that implement it, and within the UK. If it were a reformed personal practice devoid of apostasy, blasphemy, and all punishments of any kind, then it wouldn’t be a problem. No body would care – and in fact people are so credulous there may well be far more converts than there now are.

Mehdi says that ISIS crave legitimacy and we shouldn’t be giving it to them. This is typical of cultures where superficial appearances mean more than genuine honesty. It’s the kind of culture where being pleasant to someone is far more important for making a good impression for the religion than being honest. We see this in the way in which so many Muslims interviewed will not give straight talking answers when they are asked about their support for various punishments prescribed by Islam. They have to maintain the facade of the religion of piece.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to denigrate the whole world of Islam. Sorry, Mehdi, it was already understood to be a vile religion as practised in all countries where it is a majority. ISIS is merely the appearance of the worst of Islam, that many non-Muslims worried about, but which many Muslims denied could ever come about. Here it is, our worst Islamic nightmare. Your worst Islamic nightmare. No wonder you are in denial.

On discussing the religious element Mehdi again insists ISIS is a fringe cult, with zero support within the Muslim world. That’s clearly false because these are not non-Muslims joining ISIS, but Muslims. And with any extremist fringe there are more supporters out there that have not yet or may never actually join them – but to say there is zero support is a down right lie. Duplicitous Mehdi Hasan strikes again.

Mehdi insist again that religion is not the motivator but the justification. Isn’t that to Islam’s discredit that it can be so used to justify these horrors? Yes, the revolutionary violence of other ideologies may have been used by previous generations. But this violent behemoth is justified very specifically by religious texts that in state contexts elsewhere have accusations of sorcery, stoning of adulterers, hanging of gays. It’s a barbaric religion, and Mehdi Hasan is only confirming that for us by his duplicitous denials.

We get back to the ‘learned scholars’ point. Wood: they are serious about the texts because they are from a literalist tradition. They are interested in the plain meaning of the words.

Well, of course, and there is plenty of religious barbarism in there to get their teeth into – find anything remotely like that in Humanism, which doesn’t even have the much ignored horrors of the Bible.

So, here we have both literalist scholars, and naive Islamic Dummies, all able to use these dangerous weapons of the Quran and the Hadith more lethally than all the school shooting sprees in the US.

And, the problem is that the scholars of Islam are making stuff up about interpretations of a fantasy. That can lead pretty much anywhere, because there are few restraints on scholarly interpretation of otherwise explicit texts. And yes, the humanism of most people stops them becoming ISIS-like, but in these more humane times it’s astonishing that Islamic states still subscribe to barbaric practices justified by Islam.

Wood concedes he’s not Muslim and it is not for him to say who is interpreting Islam correctly. Gleeful Mehdi is only too pleased to jump on this point; forgetting, or perhaps not realising, that even as a Muslim he is in no position either, because to many scholars his liberal Islam isn’t true Islam either – Mehdi Hasan is not a Muslim, according to some Muslims. Takfir. How about that.

Mehdi mentions Anjem Choudary – an attention seeking blowhard? Well, Choudary has the texts to back him up. Choudary is not a joke figure for many of the people that think the way he does. And CAGE and other Islamic organisations are implicated in his type of extremism. If these minorities were as small as Mehdi Hasan would have us believe there wouldn’t be a problem. And, Choudary’s links to Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t a win for Mehdi, because that organisation has quite a following, and they only denounce ISIS as the true Caliphate because its not their Caliphate. More Takfir tosh.

Mehdi seems to be under the impression that ISIS is taken seriously because of their actual scholarly credentials. It isn’t. They are taken seriously in this regard precisely because they can so easily turn people to violence because they, like any Muslim, can aspire to being scholarly; and scholarly on barbaric punishments is so easy when the texts support it.

Mehdi again wants us not to take their word as ‘gospel’, because of their barbarity in beheading scholars, raping young girls. Those things are not a means to discredit their Islamic status if they can find justification in Islamic texts.

Mehdi answers the point that ISIS can quote the text by referring to David Koresh and his use of the Bible. Is this supposed to be a plus for Islam? Is this supposed to convince us that the Islamic texts cannot be used for such atrocities? Mehdi, you are a fool if you think this is making Islam sound any better. It is truly laughable that Mehdi uses David Koresh as an example of another religious cult easily finding justification in ancient barbaric texts. The joke is on you Mehdi. Koresh believed himself to be the final prophet of his cult. Where have we heard that before? Mohammed! Mehdi, keep digging that hole.

Mehdi: “No one is saying these people are not Muslims” – What? If they are Muslims in what way are they un-Islamic? This is stupid. “They are not authentically representative of Muslims.” Well, nor are Sunnis of Shias or Shias of Sunnis. What the hell, Mehdi, keep digging.

Mehdi tries the error of attribution? Oh, Mehdi, you total bullshitter. No one is denying all the political discontent, the identity crises, or whatever else you’d like to include. The point is that the barbaric texts of Islam are the justification, as you say. Isn’t that enough to condemn the Islamic texts? Of course that doesn’t condemn all Muslims because so many Muslims cherry pick (as you claim ISIS do) and interpret in their own way (as you claim ISIS do).

Don’t you get it Mehdi? Islam needs reform to put its nasty texts behind it. But it cannot because the Quran is supposed to be inerrant and the Hadith are used to justify so much more of the political and judicial aspects of Islam.

Mehdi brings up socio-economic factors? You have got to be kidding me. The wealthy Saudi families? The King of Jordan invoking Islamic wrath for the death of their pilot? The well educated British people being turned to join ISIS? The ignorant ‘scholars’ in Saudi and Iran that persecute people, Muslims and non-Muslim? The UAE courts that have criminalised rape victims, Muslim and non-Muslim alike? Get real Mehdi, there is nothing that Muslims in Britain are suffering that cannot be said of Jews and Hindus. All the recent anti-Islamic push-back has included frustrated right wing nationalist in Britain as a direct result of the vociferous supremacist nature of Islam, as sold in the UK by many Muslims, as well as Islam’s reputation as implemented in Islam dominated states.

Mehdi worries about us obsessing over the Islamic nature of ISIS? He’s the one obsessing over it, in his obsession with denying it. It is not being obsessive to point out that ISIS is using the Quran and Hadith to justify their actions when in fact they are. These are the facts that even Mehdi Hasan admits to. Get over it, Mehdi, accept that it’s right there in the texts and deal with it. Sadly, you cannot deal with it because these are your texts too.

Mehdi says we must understand ISIS. Well, yes. But denying their Islamic status, even if it’s not your Islamic status, isn’t helping in that endeavour. You are adding to the problem.

Mehdi points out that ISIS is also the product of the invasion of Iraq? Then that’s not saying a lot for the capacity of the religion of peace to come together and form a peaceful state in Iraq when the hated Americans left. Where was the unity of Islam? It was lost in the divisive corrosive nature that plagues all religions in conflict. The war in Iraq freed the chaos of religious sectarianism that was repressed under Saddam. That sectarianism is now free. That’s not a good advert for Islam, Mehdi.

Mehdi starts to make concessions toward the end, because he pretty much has to. He points out how Wood’s piece upset people – well, yes, because it contained more of the truth about the Islamic nature of ISIS than Mehdi Hasan and others have been happy with. It must be a very discomforting truth to take in, that your inerrant Quran can be so easily used to turn naive people to such grotesque behaviours. It’s right there in the texts!

It’s funny how we non-Muslims are told so often how we should listen to Muslims rather than make stuff up. Wood spoke to Muslims. But not the right type of Muslims according to his critics. Takfir talk again.

Mehdi wants to now avoid the notion that it’s a war within Islam. Well, many Muslims are being killed, by Muslims. Mehdi seems prepared to twist the argument any way he can to avoid pinning any of it on Islam.

Yes, we want to take into account all factors. But once all other factors have been removed, all social injustices sorted (as if that happens, to any group) we will still have Islamic theocracies behaving barbarically in the name of Islam. Iran was primarily an Islamic theocratic revolution. If you think that’s a good advert for Islam think again.

Sorry, Mehdi, but you are making me more and more convinced that Islam is by nature a dishonest religion.

Humanism: teaches only good stuff. If you kill in the name of humanism you will find no texts supporting your actions.

Islam: teaches good stuff and brutal barbaric stuff. Good, evil, or either, depending on mood or cartoons, Islam justifies it all. If you want to use it for good, you can. If you want to use it for evil, you can. Great.

And, this evening, as I write this, the Tunisia museum attack happened. If ISIS is doing one thing of use, it is, despite the denials, forcing Muslims to wake up to the nature of their own religion and its capacity to be turned to the barbaric ends that the texts prescribe. No amount of scholarly bullshit can hide the heinous nature of these inerrant texts.

UKIP Reasoning 101

I know, I’m a fool to myself for engaging with these doughnuts.

This is how it started, innocently enough, trying to find out if someone was blowing off or had a point to make, on Twitter (I know, I know, please don’t shout)


Then some kind soul I’d not interacted with before decided to point something out to me:


That first one? The US, will bomb an ally, for what, lowering our defence budget or something? Do you get the idea that Claire has conflated forcing regime change in in Iraq in the mistaken view that it would be for the better with no hitches, for wanting an ally to contribute to our collective defence needs?

Well, not quite. Claire not only doesn’t think it would actually happen (or at least I don’t think she thinks that), she is a bit cagey about the possibility of it happening, so cagey that “Who knows what would happen?” is good enough to have her thinking on the subject well covered.


Soak that little gem up for a moment. Claire suggests it worth speculating on how past performance might be an indicator to some “Who knows what would happen?” sort of future, potential, maybe one day, in one’s head, speculation. But then declares that, well actually past performance is not an indication of future results.

I’m now starting to suspect that this is one of those little pseudo-intelligence programs, that reads in your words, jumbles them around, and shoots them back at you in some effort to feign actual intelligence.

I was right. For at this point I decided to check Claire out. Yep, UKIP. And here’s the Twitter avatar, drawing your attention to the bottom half:


Oh, go on then, I’ll try some more:


So, I asked why an ally (in NATO) would attack us for not spending enough on defence, Claire brings up Special Relationship – old defunct US/UK thing, not NATO ally thing. So when I ask, “who mentioned S.R.”, I ask it rhetorically to mean why did she bring it up, because I didn’t, and it isn’t pertinent. I suggests she read her own avatar to see what it says about, well, bullshitting.

And, being the true blue democracy loving UKIP, she decides that taking the vote away is a good thing? Yes, I know she was being sarcastic (I hope), so I play the game and ask about her support for disenfranchisement.

Her response?


Yes, you did Claire. Full marks for knowing what you said. We still have to clear up if you know what you mean, or know anything much at all.

And …


Well, Claire doesn’t know what I’m talking about, in a rather simple exchange, where I answer her directly. What are the chances she knows what she is talking about. I try to explain:


But I get the feeling I’m not getting through:


Claire, you do realise that if morons were prevented from voting, you’d be near the top of the list for disenfranchisement?

UKIP: incontrovertible evidence that the fucking Zombie Apocalypse is well and truly under way.

Abstract Things Don’t Exist

This came out of a discussion with Wyrd Smythe in a comment section on Students showing up at college understanding the fact value distinction is a good thing.

It started as a discussion about morals, but this aside developed in the conversation.

Wyrd said this,

What about the fact that we nowhere find a perfect circle, but we do find imperfect circles that lead us to the idea of a perfect circle? In general, nowhere do we find actual mathematics in nature, but we find everywhere facts that lead to mathematics?

And my response is here, edited for better context here:

We never see perfect abstract things: points, circles, cubes, …, ‘chair’. Even when we do the math we only work with approximations – significant figures, or symbols that represent some fictitious notion. Models with many terms even drop less significant terms as intentional approximations, in order to simplify the models, and then, wow, some complex system nearly fits reality.

The Platonic Forms ideas is all wrong. Material objects are not crude examples of pure platonic forms. Instead, idealised models are approximations to real forms. They are simplistic models, compared to an accurate model of any particular real object. And since all real objects are unique (I think) the ideal models are like statistical models – analogous to the ideal gas laws, for example.

I think the platonic perception comes from the human brain history: we awake and become self aware, and aware of our thinking, but at that time we know nothing of evolution. We come ready made. The material world seems messy, and the mental world seems cleaner, more perfect. And we can imagine things we don’t see. So the mental world is an indication of a more perfect reality. The primacy of the mental over the physical is established, so the imagined pure things must be real. But that turns out to be fiction, dreams, imagination, idealistic approximations. We are no more than evolved complex chemistry, sloppy biology, that survives.

Why should we expect the universe to be pure or perfect in any way? Why should we think there’s any sort of reality to perfect models?

Wyrd responded here. And what follows addresses his view as presented, but expands on mine.

“In fact, any real world circle is the approximation of the abstraction of a circle.”

I disagree because abstract circles don’t exist except as conceptual patterns in minds, as sometimes expressed by mathematical correlates. And, since minds are really a brain’s eye view of itself, and brains at various levels are quantised, as synapses, action potentials, molecules, atoms, then there is nowhere where an abstract circle exists. The mathematics of circles happen to fit well with the imaginary abstract circles, and not quite so well with real objects that we call circles.

At the very best, one could say that abstract circles and real circles are relative approximates to each other.

…it’s very difficult to imagine an intelligent race failing to discover a theory of circles. A circle is easy to define.

Yes, I can imagine aliens would figure out a theory of circles, and symbolism aside I would guess it would be the same as ours, or in some form such that the two theories could be derived from each other, perhaps starting with different axioms. But, how would aliens come to a theory of circles if they didn’t actually have any circles to play with. Which came first, pi.r^2, or wheels? Or was it logs?

How do brains come to any knowledge without experience. We have what appear to innate capacities: to distinguish between horizontal and vertical lines to different degrees, to recognise certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and acquired experiences passed on through inheritance. In what sense do abstractions exist if a brain hasn’t had some experience that triggers some pattern. The abstractions we think we know about always occur first in our brains. Some human came up with the notion of a perfect circle, but in his brain at that time his ‘perfect circle’ was made of patterns in his digital brain stuff. There is no perfect circle, only the approximate notion of one in the imagination.

One might wonder about abstractions that are never experienced in actuality – flights of fancy, myths, original art work. The representation, as patterns in the brain, is the real world ‘thing’ that represents the abstraction. That it is a pattern corresponding to nothing in the real world is irrelevant. The abstraction doesn’t exist still; it’s the brain pattern that exists.

Collecting a mass of data and calculating the mean is the act of producing an abstract measure that is useful as an approximate representation for the bulk of the data. That same mean value could be the mean of countless slightly different distributions of data from real world things.

Any abstract circle is an approximate representation of many real circles that do or could exist or could be created. It’s a representation of real things. That a mathematical theory works well is an interesting fact. But that in itself does not prove or demonstrate that real things are approximations to abstractions rather than the other way round.

My reason for preferring to use this alternative perspective is that it moves us away from the mistaken reification of abstract ideas as pure or transcendent, which all too often causes us to take these abstractions as reality.

“The natural abstraction necessary to enable counting…”

I rather think it’s the case that dealing with objects came first, as an empirical experience, before developing counting. Other animals seem to get on quite well without such abstractions, and surely without abstract maths.

Animal brains that can detect moving objects, that can tell when they are outnumbered or outsized, are processing sense data that does not need an abstraction theory. It can get by with messy brain approximations to the messy external patterns it’s observing. I’m guessing, but I don’t think a lion sits quietly contemplating how better to get the next prey animal, musing on the theory of predator-prey motion dynamics, because today’s prey managed to escape it. And creatures with no nervous system don’t do any brain stuff at all – they are essentially constrained phsyics and chemistry automata. The ‘mathematical’ nature of the universe is something we put on it. The universe conforms to patterns because of the nature of reality. Aliens will discover circles when they look up at the sky and see a sun or a moon. At a distance they will look like perfect circles, because the alien eyes cannot see the real edges formed by the horizons.

Having said that, I’m not dismissive of all abstract ideas. But the ones I see having potential as an aspect of reality are quite different. Of course there’s Wheeler’s ‘it from bit’ and Luciano Floridi’s ‘information’, which abstracts away the whole of reality – but they are reductionist perspectives on our reality, not separate abstractions to which reality conforms. There are no circles in those abstract perspectives as far as I’m aware – there’s not much of anything.

But proper calculation requires an analog computer with a complexity order equal to the real world. In fact, the real world is that analog computer; it calculates the three-body problem and weather predictions with ease.

Well, it could be digital – the old atomist argument. But even so, circles are constructs in that reality, not a part of it. The reduction of reality to its constituents does not necessarily show us any circles down there, so the maths of circles is still just models of how that lower scale reality builds up into real atoms, and real messy circles made of lumpy atoms.

Note that I’m not claiming Plato’s realm of perfect forms has ontological reality, but I think it has an almost undeniable epistemological reality. If you grant that any intelligent species will discover mathematics and geometry, it almost has to have it.

Ghosts have epistemological reality. We can ‘know’ about them conceptually. But they are not real, as far as I know. This is partly why I’m not convinced by Platonic forms and other neat abstractions like circles. We can actually have imaginative abstractions of messy things too. And abstractions that don’t exist. That seems a clue to me that all abstractions do not exist, and that they are creations in the mind, and are sometimes approximate representations of reality.

And, you can also say that any species that deals with the real world and real objects will invent abstract approximations to make life easier.

If I design a building, but don’t build it, is the building real? Isn’t there some form of reality to the design?”

Yes. It consists first as messy vague patterns in neurons. It’s committed to paper by the messy accumulation of real pencil lines (or as quantised bits, bytes, words, numeric finite representations in a computer). Nowhere ever does it exist as what we abstract as ‘the design’. We pretend it does. Using the term, “The design”, is no more than using a mathematical symbol to represent a complex expression. Brains that review the messy pencil lines (or printout, or digital screen display, or ‘analogue’ electron display) only ever hold vague mental representations. We juggle parts of the design around, focus on bits, even use language to express numbers in the design. Photocopy the ‘design drawing’ and the ink patterns will differ; copy the data to a different computer and it will be represented still by quantised bits.

The abstraction of the design is no more real than gods.

In fact ‘information’ is an interesting ‘thing’. It doesn’t exist. So, how is information ‘transferred’? I’ll finish with a couple of examples of that.

It’s an abstract approximation to reality. It’s a representation of often quite distinct things that have some correspondence.

Example: Computer Information

When I download an ‘app’ onto my phone, there is nothing on the server computer that arrives on my phone. Nothing. The server computer sends electrons in patterns around its circuits, reading bits from memory. They are used to induce changes in a transmission port that takes electrons from a power source. The pattern of the transmitted electrons down the wire has some correspondence with the patter of electrons representing the app in the server’s memory. The app in the server’s memory doesn’t go anywhere – well, depending on the type of memory: dynamic memory is refreshed, so that the bit pattern representing the app is maintained. In reality that pattern may get shifted around, destroyed and recreated – all depending on the state of the system and its management of data.

In the meantime electrons are going down wires, inducing transformations in yet other wires by yet more transducers. There may be a satellite hop involved eventually, or maybe a microwave link to your local phone cell. None of the original atoms or electrons or energy are present by this time. Power supplies along the way are providing energy, electrons, heat, to make local patterns that correspond to the incoming patterns, and in turn cause outgoing patterns to match.

Eventually electromagnetic signals induce electron flow in my phone’s antenna, circuits decode the data, patterns are created in my phone that match the app pattern on the distant server.

And there is nothing on my phone that was on the server. Nothing. My phone merely contains a pattern of bits that correspond to a pattern of bits somewhere else.

Think about the energy. All the energy used in my phone comes from its battery. The same for millions of phones that have ‘downloaded’ the app. There is not some drain like a tap on a barrel when an app is downloaded. There is a drain, or course, but very little of the energy goes out through the wires in the server network – we’re talking volts and milliamps, and nearly all that comes from a power feed into the output chips, not from the memory bits where the app is stored as a bit pattern. The energy used by a server mostly leaves as heat, not as information carrying electrons.

And that term, ‘download’. We’re used to the term ‘download’, but it’s a metaphor. In reality patterns are copied. In the transmission process the ‘information’ (that is never an ontological ‘thing’) goes through many encodings and decodings. Even the sequence of bits can be out of order because the ‘information’ is transferred in packets, which may be lost and resent.

Example: Shouting across a field.

You and a friend stand at opposite ends of a field. You read aloud a list of common names, and he has to remember them and shout them back, in order. None of the matter, none of the energy, that left your mouth, reaches his ears. Sequences of colliding air atoms absorb and retransmit energy, dissipating some as heat, passing some on as motion in the next atom. Much of that energy is transmitted radially, so what reaches your friend’s ear is a tiny representation of the sound that left your mouth – roughly the inverse square proportion. His ear picks it up. The energy in the air particles in your friends ear, vibrating mechanisms in his inner ear, none of it ends up in his auditory cortex.

We say you have given him some information. It’s meaningful information to him because when he hears the names you shout out, his brain has become accustomed to the neuron signals, the patterns of firings, entering his auditory cortex. Without that language context all that’s going on in his brain is some neurons are firing, triggering ready made patterns, doing what brains do when they recognise stuff.

No matter or energy that left your brain as you read and spoke these names, none of it entered his head.

Information is an abstract term we use to describe that process. We think of information as a ‘thing’ because as physical creatures that have ancestors that didn’t have brains. When they experienced something it was all physical, chemical, biological, local. It still is; but eyes, ears, voices, they allow us to make remote physical connections. We don’t need to ‘transfer’ ‘information’ directly, through touch, we do it indirectly, through the touch of air movement in our ears, or the arrival of photons in our eyes.

Information does not exist in its own right. It has no ontological existence. The term, ‘information’, is what we use to represent the corresponding patterns that exist in our two heads when we communicate.

Is Death Bad For You? No, Don’t Laugh. This Is Philosophy.

Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015

What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?

The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question.

A rational attitude:

1 – Try to be blasé about the fact of death. Once it happens you are not going to care very much about it at all. This worry about the value of life not yet lived and not to be lived is childish. It’s not wanting to miss out on something you cannot have. It’s the hankering of what is actually going to be of no concern to you. It is at best an unsatisfied curiosity.

2 – My attitude now is that I would like to be around to see some amazing things happen that I will not get to see. Super duper AI. Space flight for leisure. Brain upgrades. Whatever. If extended healthy life spans were possible I’d consider it. But if they are not, then so be it. I don’t here people that died in 1900 lamenting their failure to see the new millennium. Because they are dead.

3 – Fear of dying is rational. Illness, pain, suffering – they are not nice. I’m slightly apprehensive going to the dentist – it’s not as relaxing as having tea and biscuits in my conservatory. So fearing the unknown possibility of painful ill health is natural. When you’ve seen aged grand parents and parents suffering it puts you off that bit; but reasonable good health is just fine, if not always convenient. It might be frustrating to become dependent too. There is a balance, and a personal decision about where that balance lies, but there is one sure enough, between soldiering on and calling it quits. Dying isn’t the worse thing that can happen to you. Actually being dead is as neutrally good or bad as having never been born.

Thus the question might be rephrased as: how should we feel about being permanently annihilated? For those who are certain there is an afterlife, this question will be merely of theoretical interest, but those who think annihilation is even a possibility should be interested in this question.

Are you fucking kidding me? Philosophers are fucking hopeless sometimes. They can come over all grandiosely sceptical and inquisitive about shit like this, and then have a hissy fit if you suggest that we don’t have free will; or that Mary either learned something new, not having the full knowledge of red, or she already invoked a redness experience internally from the full knowledge she was supposed to have.

Look, how long you are dead when you are dead might be of the slightest interest if there was the prospect of making you undead later. If the Jesus resurrection trick became science and an evil Earth Emperor resurrected people as slaves, then it might be of interest. But, if I’m ashes I’m not me. If I’m a brain recording revived in a copy body, then that isn’t me. That poor sap has something to worry about, but not me.

If anything the very notion of being interested in what happens after death should arouse a far more pertinent question: since my physical structure changes over time there’s a sense in which the me now will not be the crumpled old man I will become with a catheter and a withered brain, so why should I worry about the future. Yes, what becomes me will suffer. But I’m not suffering now. So, those teens and twenty-somethings that feel immortal, that’s a pretty smart attitude.

Does Christopher Hitchens regret all the drinking and smoking that pretty surely brought on his early death? Well, not any more he doesn’t, if he ever did.

Of course some times we can’t help but anticipate the future. We have pension plans, for fuck’s sake. But don’t let it get out of hand. Planning for funeral costs is a curtsey to your bereaved family – unless you can convince them to hand over your body to someone that will pay for it. Tell them to get rid by the most economically convenient method, I don’t know, e-bay? And if they really feel the need, have a party at their house. Planning for your possible long life isn’t an irrational idea. Worrying about being dead is pointless.

I’m into remembering people and events. Poppies, the Cenotaph, … These are good for us as a society to help us remember events in the hope we learn. There a sort of folk education. The paying of respects is like an act of duty, but to us and future generations, by thinking about what someone gave in order to make our lives better. This is a useful process, I think, for the living. But it does nothing for the dead.

The same with personal bereavement: it’s something for the living and their relationship with the deceased, a reminder of what we value, a time to reflect on good times, which is something we seem to enjoy doing. Incidentally, my father has a small plaque at a cemetery, but I don’t visit it. I still think about my father. Now, he was ill for most of my young life and died when I was 18. He suffered shell shock at Dunkirk and malaria in Burma in WWII, so he’s a hero to me. I have his medals. I’m feeling emotional now. But that plaque representing him means nothing to me. His ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance, but that means nothing either. But this inadequate memory I have of the man does mean something to me. Death of loved ones is significant for us. But quite uninteresting to the dead.

A good way to start thinking about how we should feel about death would be by figuring out whether death is bad for us and why.

I tell you, I fucking despair at the bollocks philosophers come up with. Too much time on their hands. Philosophy, an awfully slow death.

Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is generally bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the victim of more of a good life.

Oh come on! You’re having me on. This is a parody of philosophy, surely. Please tell me it is so that I can laugh with you rather than at you.

The death of Socrates by poisoning was a bit of a loss for his Greek society deprived of his witty way with questioning. But was it that much of a loss to him? Another ten or twenty years, suffering in old age and dying a possibly even more gruesome death? What about the few thousand years since then, what about all that time since he died? What about all he’s going to miss in that great year of 2525, the one we’ll all miss too? Are you regretting not being alive in 2525? Why not, if being dead is such a problem? Well, Socrates would prefer death to the loss of his freedom to philosophise and share his ideas. So death can’t be that bad. And it was unlikely he’d reach 2525, so, good call.

Don’t misunderstand me. I and not a pessimist giving up on life. I’m a biological survival machine, just like you. If anything I’ll probably have an irrational need to cling to life if I’m approaching death rapidly and unexpectedly – the biology of survival is stubborn. But I hold no irrational mystical regard for life. I value the living for being alive as human social survival machines – I’m a humanist, wanting the best for myself and fellow humans. While we’re alive let’s enjoy it.

But being dead is, well, uninteresting, not least to the dead.

We might go on to say something about degrees: how bad death is depends on how much of a good life it deprives its victim from having. Deprivation is a counterfactual notion: what death deprives a victim from having is what would have happened to the victim if she hadn’t died. Given optimistic assumptions about the quality of human life, death is therefore normally bad for people, and it is often one of the worst things that can happen to someone. On this picture death is instrumentally bad for a person, not intrinsically bad for her. Death is bad for someone because of its results, not in itself.

You know when you come across a new word that sounds really good and you figure you could use it without seeming too much of a twat? That’s what I feel philosophers go through in graduate school when the discover ‘counterfactual’. I think they think it’s such a cool name for a cool idea that they just can’t stop finding excuses to use it. It just means talking about stuff that didn’t or won’t happen, but might have happened or even couldn’t possibly of happened but it’s cool to think about anyway. What sort of world would we be living in now had Germany and Japan had won in WWII? Lol. Where do we start dispelling the futility of such a question.

But yes, deprivation in death is a counterfactual, a pretty fucking useless one. Deprivation in life, now that’s more interesting because deprivation could be ongoing, and relieving it might actually make a portion of a lived life better. But the counterfactual to death is fucking useless, for the dead.

Counterfactual reasoning about one’s lived life, when someone close dies, is a fair human emotional process to go through.

It’s about sorting your brain out, from the programmed path it had laid down for you and your loved one, to the new path that you must travel alone. It’s about coping with drastic change. Old couples that have had a long life may grieve, and sometimes it can be so bad that the one left behind soon follows. Lots of memories.

But I cannot imagine how it is for a parent that loses a child, or a teen. Recent news of another young person lost to murder, and her distraught parents on the news. Fucking awful. And the girl may have suffered. Fucking awful. Sometimes the phrase, “they are at peace now,” can be a real consolation when the counterfactual turns from dreadful possibility to actual fact – and the phrase has meaning for both the religious, who imagine them going on to some fairy land life, and for us atheists that know simply that the end of suffering will have to be sufficient.

Once a person is dead, counterfactuals on death are nothing more than cognitive exercises for the living.

The deprivation account seems like it must be basically right. Some have argued for some bells and whistles to be added. For example, Jeff McMahan claims that the badness of death should be discounted based on, among other things, (1) the extent of the psychological relations that would have held between the person at the time of death and the person at the times she would have been getting the good things death deprived her from getting (the ‘time-relative interests account’), and (2) the extent to which the victim previously enjoyed a good life (McMahan 2002).

You couldn’t make this shit up outside a bizarre fantasy, unless you’re a theologian or a philosopher.

How should we feel about death? This seems pretty simple too. According to ‘fitting attitude’ analyses of value, to be good just is, roughly, to be the fitting object of pro-attitudes, and to be bad just is to be the fitting object of con-attitudes. Given the deprivation account of the badness of death along with our optimistic assumption, it follows that death is, typically, a fitting object of a negative attitude. Of course, fitting attitude analyses of value are controversial. I don’t wish to defend such analyses. But even if value cannot be analyzed in this way, a weaker claim may still be true: necessarily, if something is bad then it is the fitting object of a negative attitude. Given the deprivation account and the optimistic assumption, this entails that death merits a negative attitude.

This is such bullshit. But then a ray of hope:

There is one way in which a negative attitude towards death is not warranted. If we want to know how we should feel about death in itself, it seems that we should be indifferent towards it. After all, nothing good or b d will happen to you while you are dead. There should be a difference between our intrinsic attitudes towards death and our overall attitudes. The attitudes that are intrinsically fitting to have towards death are the attitudes it would be appropriate to have towards death considered by itself, independent of what else death brings about or prevents.

Philosophy career advice: Think of some easy to answer question that has a touch of potential profundity about it. Figure out the simple most obvious answer. Spend more time conjuring up a paper that starts with some straw men to tear down. Put the simple stuff in there as your alternative way at looking at things in order to seem relatively smart. Publish the paper, Then sit back, smoke a pipe, have a beer, or a sherry, and contemplate your next great paper in a quizzical manner most befitting your status at your university.

But things are not so simple. One complication is that there are a lot of negative attitudes one might have about death: fear, dread, worry, hatred, and many more.

Look, if you are suffering a painful or otherwise miserably slow death, and the right to die isn’t recognised as a right where you live, then you have my sympathy for what you are going through, and these worries are understandable.

But if you’re healthy with some time to go, and you are still that worried about death, then you most likely have some psychological issues that are troubling you in life that are more significant than your distant death. I would advise that, if at all you can, you pull your finger out and stop being a narcissistic ass.

On the other hand, if you are genuinely suffering from depression and other bad shit, then, again, my sympathies, but get help and do put death on the back burner. Things might get better.

Anyway, on we go. At last, some thought experiments to get our teeth into. There’s nothing like a philosopher’s thought experiments for inventing unrealistic scenarios. But at least this one is pretty straight forward.

Suppose a young and healthy man named Jim steps in front of a bus and is severely injured; he quickly succumbs to his injuries. Is Jim’s death bad for him? It seems plausible to say that it is. But it might also seem plausible to say that if Jim hadn’t died when he did, he would have instead experienced a great amount of pain and suffering from being hit by the bus. So each of the following might be an appropriate account of what happened:

  • Jim got hit by a bus and died. What a shame! He was so young. If Jim hadn’t died, he would have lived a long and healthy life.
  • Given that Jim got hit by a bus, it’s probably better that he died. If he hadn’t, he would have been severely injured instead. He wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.

This is the kind of whimsical stuff you talk about in the pub after a funeral. It’s not a serious philosophical challenge. Note that this isn’t even a completely useful list. Add Had Jim not been hit by a bus he wouldn’t have been hit by a bus and would have been fine.. Or is that too clear for philosophy?

Attributions of instrumental value are fundamentally contrastive. What is bad for Jim is dying rather than not being hit by the bus at all. What is not bad for Jim is dying rather than being severely injured. There is no absolute fact of the matter about whether Jim’s death, full stop, is bad for him, even though context can make an assertion of ‘Jim’s death was bad for him’ true. Context makes a particular contrast, or class of contrasts, salient.

Well, so a philosopher can figure out that suffering might be worse than death, but living a healthy life is better than death. And I presume living a healthy life is better than suffering. I feel an Ig Nobel prize is due for the thought research that provoked this thought experiment and brought us this ground breaking insight.

John Broome puts the point in this way: ‘All the significant facts have been fully stated once we have said what dying at eighty-two is better than and what it is worse than. There is no further significant question whether or not dying at eighty-two is an absolutely bad thing.’ (Broome 1999, 171) Broome may be overstating things here a bit, because it is also significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two.

No! He’s still understating the insignificance of death to the dead. And no, it is not “significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two”. It has no significance at all once you are dead. The only pre-death significance it has, to that person, is a measure of how fucked up he is, worrying about what he’ll miss after death.

Given that the badness of death is contrastive…

No! Dying is contrastive, with regard to the contrasting deaths that might occur, including, prior to the death, the predictability of the death. There is no useful contrast to the state of being dead.

Do you suffer inordinate anguish over the counterfactual life you didn’t have before you were born? How ‘contrastive’ are you going to be with that? Oh shit! I might not have been born! Fuck, what should I do?

Well, actually I do regret missing out on things from before I was born. Occasionally I have had these moments of false nostalgia. I grew up in an austere part of Britain, and I saw teenage kids in American movies of the fifties, with cars, and diners serving super ice creams. But these are just little moments of irrationality poking its nose in, and they are easily dismissed. A have a nostalgia for what I foolishly imagine to be the glamorous life of a WWII Spitfire pilot, but then I think I could be mistaken about how glamorous it actually was.

But aside from these momentary flights of fancy, along with wanting to be Superman, or wishing I had a pair of those X-Ray Specs from the back of comics, I really don’t think that in moments of rational lucidity one needs to think much about being dead at all. Dreams, lucid or not, can invoke fears that in waking lucidity seem stupid, but dreaming is an odd psychological state anyway, unencumbered by empirical sense correction.

Compared to being dead or the state of being dead, something like the prospective approach to death, going to war and anticipating dangers that could lead to your imminent death, is a perfectly natural survival process. Approaching death, with potential suffering, and being dead, are quite different things, with the former understandably arousing survival fears, but the latter being of no concern whatsoever, except to those left behind.

I do remember, when my kids were young and dependent, I went through the natural parental angst of worrying about how they will go on if my wife and I died while they were young. That unfortunate scenario becomes reality to many children, and I wouldn’t have wished it upon mine. But even so, once I’m dead I also stop worrying about the living. So even my living concern for my kids in the event of my death is only about their continued living, not about my being dead.

So, again, the only living concerns one might have about one’s own death is how it is approached and how you will provide for your dependants. And once dead these matters cease to be worries. A young dying parent could also understandably have regrets about missing their children grow up. But again, once dead that ceases to be a concern. When you are dead any worries you had will be gone, for you, and any counterfactual futures about seeing your children grow are gone for you.

There is simply nothing to concern you about actually being dead. Stop worrying about not existing.

Moving on.

When is a preference rational? This seems easy: it is rational to prefer P to Q iff P is better than Q.

Sounds easy when you put it like that.

Thus Jim ought to greatly prefer living a long healthy life to dying, and he should not prefer living a short life full of suffering to dying (depending on how much pain there is, maybe he should prefer death to continued life in such a state).

The ‘full of suffering’ is not about one’s concern for death but about one’s concern for living, in a state of suffering. Preferring P to Q is now about preferring non-suffering (in death or a healthy life) to suffering, and is no longer about preferring life to non-life, death.

Thinking of it in terms of the counterfactual of what life you missed prior to your birth and becomes clear that preferring life to non-life is quite fucking pointless, and the only reason you are falling for the death problem is that it is made murky by the route to death and the possibility of suffering.

You have changed the point of interest from preferring P (being alive and healthy) to Q (being dead), a meaningless comparison; so that now you are comparing P (death) to Q (suffering life) or P (healthy life) to Q (suffering life). This whole paper is just confused in what it is about.

So here is a simple part of the story about correct attitudes towards death: it is correct to prefer a particular future to death iff you would be better off given that future than if you died.

Why? If you are ruling out a suffering life, so the comparison is life and non-life, then there is no sense in which ‘better off’ has any useful meaning in this context.

When you are dead, nothing matters.

While you are alive and healthy, being alive is good, generally – since our survival nature makes us enjoy being alive, and it is probably contrary to evolutionary selection to make being unhappy enough to top yourself the natural state. Marvin the Paranoid Android is not how we are naturally.

But to say one state is better than the other, when in each state there is no access to the other state, is a totally fucked up philosophical notion. It’s irrational!

In the next section the paper moves on to preference and desire, and continues to get it wrong.

Suppose S, incorrectly, prefers death to a good life. It follows that S desires to die on the condition that S lives a worthwhile life or S dies; so that desire must also be incorrect, since it is identical to an incorrect preference.

This presumption that preferring death to a good life is incorrect is incorrect in itself. It is a neutral comparison deserving no preference. It makes no sense to prefer either.

If I prefer life and decide to live on, I live on not knowing death until later. If I prefer death and can arrange a nice death then I cease to know life.

Of course we can play the counterfactual game again. So, you might say, “Oh, but once your dead there’s no going back, you’ve burnt your bridges!” Well, if you think that then the point still hasn’t sunk in. When you’re dead you don’t give a fuck about burnt bridges! It doesn’t matter.

I guess there will be a lot of loose thinking inspired angst around this idea in some quarters. Maybe influenced by our natural instinct to survive, made all the more confusing by some inspired respect for life itself and a token of religiously inspired guilt at taking one’s own life. But really, if for some reason I manage to overcome the my survival instinct, then what would be the problem with me deciding to top myself? I’ve never heard a rational answer to this that wasn’t loaded with emotional BS. We can give evolutionary biological reasons for why we tend not to do this, but no other reason why we should not.

You’ll note, incidentally, that this term ‘correct’ is loaded with moral indignation about the right to choose one’s own life and death. It’s a very religious theme, with a prescription for life and a proscription for death – the religious love to control.

More confusion arises in section 5, about beliefs.

For example, suppose I do not want to go to the dentist because of the painfulness of having my teeth cleaned. But you convince me that I would be better off in the long run if I go. So I truly believe that I would be better off if I went. Still, I fail to form a desire to go. My failing to desire to go to the dentist is incorrect because it is insufficiently sensitive to my true beliefs.

This is irrelevant, because this scenario compares life with or without going to the dentist. It’s a poor analogy. In this case the failing to go to the dentist is ‘incorrect’ only if you already have a dichotomy where going is correct and not going is incorrect, as some indication of the measure of the outcomes. You have decided that not having tooth ache is good, and having it is bad, and going to the dentist will reduce the risk of the bad and increase the chance of the good, therefore the ‘correct’ path to achieving good is to go to the dentist, and the ‘incorrect’ path is not to go. The comparative states are meaningful here. If you don’t go and end up with tooth ache you can legitimately regret not going, and if you go, find some tooth decay and have it fixed, you can be pleased you did not choose not to go. Ahead of time in either case you can anticipate contemplating the counterfactual and regret not taking that other route, or be glad you did not.

But dead and not-dead are mutually exclusive comparative states. When alive you can’t know anything about what it’s like to be dead. While alive it’s pointless being glad you’re not dead, because at that time you are not dead. Right now, how many other counterfactuals should I be glad of or regret? Should I be happy I’m not a tree? How does this work? What is the point of being happy I’m not dead?

And when I’m dead I won’t be in state to regret not being alive – unlike being alive with tooth ache when I can regret not having gone to the dentist.

In section 7 we get to the conclusions.

Here, then, are some ways that you might have incorrect attitudes towards death. You might fail to be intrinsically indifferent towards death — you might have a positive or negative attitude towards nonexistence considered in itself.

That pair of statements says it all. But it needed a full paper to say it? Sadly, there’s more:

You might fail to have a pro-attitude towards the intrinsic goods of which death deprives you, or a con-attitude towards the intrinsic evils. You might prefer to die rather than live, even though living would be better for you than dying; …


… or you might prefer to live rather than die even though dying would be better for you.

This actually makes sense – you might indeed prefer that, but it is your prerogative to live in such state if you wish.

But what is important and is missed here is the right to die if dying would relieve certain suffering. But also missed, and not supported by the right to die movement, is the question: who the fuck denies me the right to die even if I simply choose to with no suffering persuading me? The reason this doesn’t crop up so much is because our survival instinct usually prevents us taking it seriously.

And we have other aspects to our humanist lives that drive us not to allow someone to be coerced into wanting a death they might otherwise not want: torturing people until they plead for death, influencing vulnerable people to persuade them that they have some duty to die … we have desires that make us guard against that, because that amounts to murder, even if the victim takes their own life in the end.

But, philosophically, since the philosopher put counterfactuals are on the table, what about the counterfactual where there is no coercion and I simply decide that I’m bored with life and and want to top myself. All the stops are pulled out to prevent me. I could get away with it, by some messy suicide.

Not to worry, this is only a counterfactual thought experiment. But the philosophical point stands. Why is it wrong, incorrect, bad, to die?

You might have an attitude towards death that is regulated by an incorrect preference or belief. Finally, you might fail to have an attitude towards death that you should have, given your correct preferences and beliefs. Perhaps there are other ways to have an incorrect attitude too.

Lots of presuppositions about what’s correct or what should be preferred, when they are irrelevant.

There is another case that is puzzling, and might challenge the entire framework within which I am working. Consider the person who feels existential terror or angst at the prospect of death. When considering that at some future time, she will no longer exist, she is filled with terror. She does not obsess about it, but contemplating a future in which she is simply not there is terrifying to her.

This isn’t puzzling at all. I’m surprised that a philosopher can’t figure this out. She simply has a problem that’s interfering with her living. As with any other phobia it’s disconcerting to be trapped by the irrational fear. That’s a psychological problem to be fixed, if she deems she needs it fixing. Do other mammals have existential angst when no imminent danger is present? Contemplating distant unpredictable death seems to be a glitch we acquired with an imaginary brain; except of course it does come along with anticipating danger and threats to survival, so maybe it’s a benefit that has simply got out of control.

Perhaps she’s read too much philosophy. Perhaps she should become a philosopher.

It is far from clear either that a finite existence cannot be meaningful, or that there is any particular link between terror and meaninglessness.

What? Look, if people can’t find enough meaning in their finite natural lives, they seem quite able to invent imaginary after lives to take up the slack. Is this need for meaning another glitch? Again, many mammals seem not to need it. Come to that, I know a few humans that are pretty fulfilled by a pint, some cigs and the occasional screw.

There needn’t be a link between terror and meaninglessness. Many people are able to scare themselves into thinking there is, so they search out religions and other mysticisms, which of course are in the business of promoting that theme.

Fuck it! Chill out. I am here by the coincidence of evolution, and that my parents fucked and this sperm ovum came together, and I grew up and had the education I did, and went on to think about this stuff and decided being dead isn’t a big deal, even though dying might be. The contingency and meaninglessness of our existence is liberating. I am here and this is it. When I’m gone that’s that. It’s really easy, if you just let go of this neediness for something else, something it appears you’ll never have. So much human energy seems to go into creating fake solutions to an imaginary problem, and forcing others to be bound by these existential terrors. Foolish. Wasting a very finite life, by spending a good deal of that finite life worrying about the end of that finite life.

Death, for most of us, is some uncertain but distant way off.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled us don’t need to get to us at all. It’s time to see what we can do to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for us we’re free!

… thanks to a little friend of mine for bringing this much brighter philosophical perspective to my attention …

cue Elsa … Let it go, let it go.